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Get in the holiday spirit with these classical Christmas songs

Here’s the best classical Christmas music from Bach to Tchaikovsky that will get you ready for the holiday season

By Tolly Wright

Enough of this "Ramones" and "John Lennon" nonsense—bring back real music! Here's to the era when the only thing "shredding" was the tip of a composer's pencil flowing across his parchment staff, when the best Christmas songs were heavy on orchestral suites rather than punk drumming beats. If you frequent the city's best music stores during holiday season on the prowl for sheet music and violin frogs (only real heads will know!), you'll find what you need right here. Whether you're searching for gifts for music lovers or heading to the city's best Christmas concerts this season, cue up our playlist of the best classical Christmas songs and "rock out" in style.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Christmas in NYC

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Classical Christmas songs playlist

Best classical Christmas music

“A Carol Symphony” by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

11. “A Carol Symphony” by Victor Hely-Hutchinson

Written by British composer Hely-Hutchinson in 1929, when he was just 28 years old, this symphony brings four movements centered around classic Christmas carols: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” “The First Noel” and “Here We Come A-wassailing.” Listen carefully and you might hear undertones of the Coventry Carol in the third part as well.

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“A Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten

12. “A Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten

Don’t be fooled by the Middle English words of this awe-worthy choral piece: Britten wrote the music in 1942. Using select portions of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems for his text, Britten created an eleven-movement cantata worthy of the ages.

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“In Terra Pax” by Gerald Finzi

13. “In Terra Pax” by Gerald Finzi

Another intricate choral piece by a 20th-century British composer, Finzi skillfully brought together words by British poet laureate Robert Bridges and the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke for  “In Terra Pax.”

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“Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree)” by Franz Liszt
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Franz Hanfstaengl

14. “Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree)” by Franz Liszt

Written for his granddaughter while the composer was living in Rome, this collection of 12 songs for the piano is not the best known suite by the prolific Hungarian composer. Yet, the tranquil arrangements of pre-existing hymns and carols, and the addition of entirely original compositions, make it a thoughtful reflection on the holiday.

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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Franz Hanfstaengl

“Coventry Carol" by Anon

15. “Coventry Carol" by Anon

Before Christmas was the commercial powerhouse it is today, churches spent a fair amount of time drumming up the drama of King Herrod’s obsession with finding and killing the baby Jesus. This early-16th-century song depicting the massacre of the innocents is an example of this, and is appropriately haunting.

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“Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music)” by Arnold Schoenberg
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Richard Gerstl

16. “Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music)” by Arnold Schoenberg

Austrian composer Schoenberg arranged this version of the 16th century Christmas hymn "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" (Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming) in the early 20th century for a chamber group. When the song adds moments of “Good King Wenceslas” and other well known Christmas carols, the dynamic quality of Schoenberg's expressionist composition skills is revealed.

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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia/Richard Gerstl

Sergei Prokofiev
Photograph: Unknown, published by Bain News Service

17. “Troika” by Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev's seasonal, joyful piece begins slowly and then quickens its tempo, resembling a brisk winter ride upon the piece's titular three-horse sleigh. The composition is part of Lieutenant Kijé, an orchestral suite written for a film in the very first days of sound cinema.

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“Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)”

18. “Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)”

Though the exact authorship is often disputed, with everyone from a Portuguese King to (more commonly) a Scottish Jacobite living in exile, “Adeste Fideles” has become one of the best known Christmas hymns around the world.

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“Hansel and Gretel: Dream Pantomime” by Engelbert Humperdinck

19. “Hansel and Gretel: Dream Pantomime” by Engelbert Humperdinck

When this crowd-pleasing opera based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale was first performed in December 1893 (conducted by famed composer Richard Strauss), the music became forever connected with Christmas. It seems fitting that a magical tale of children and candy should live on in today’s rather secular version of the holiday filled with sugary treats and toys.

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“O Sanctissima (O Most Holy)”

20. “O Sanctissima (O Most Holy)”

Another hymn dedicated to the Virgin Mary, “O Sanctissima” dates back to the 18th century. Performed originally on feast days celebrating Mary, the song is now a standard for orchestras and classical chamber groups around the holiday season.

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