Johann Sebastian Bach, Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" ("From Heaven above to Earth I come"), BWV 769
In 1747 Bach was invited to join the prestigious Correspondierende Societät der musicalischen Wissenschaften, an elite society established to further musical science, whose membership included both Handel and Telemann. One of entry requirements was a composition. Bach's set of five variations on Luther's Christmas Hymn was his contribution.
If you listened to the Christmas Oratorio, you might well recognise echoes in this piece. The conclusion of part one of the oratorio uses the chorale 'Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulei' (Ah! Dearest Jesus, Holy Child), from the thirteenth stanza:
The hymn itself, written in 1539 draws on Luke 2:8-18, and covers the annunciation to the shepherds, the invitation to the manger to celebrate the birth, and concludes with a hopeful focus on the coming new year.
Recommended recording: Christopher Herrick, on Partitas & Canonic Variations, Hyperion CDA66455.
Franz Schmidt - The Book with Seven Seals
Advent and the book of Revelation should be paired together, musically and theologically.
Franz Schmidt's oratorio was premiered in Vienna, shortly after Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria. If ever there were a time in history where a message of hope were needed, Europe in the late 1930s would be it.
The music itself is magnificent. Despite its temporal proximity to the radicalism of both Hindemith and Schoenberg, it's presentation owes more to Wagner than neoclassicism or serialism. The words of St John, as narrator, and Jesus have a richness and energy that remind me of Siegfried, or Parsifal, and are no more forgiving for the tenor.
With a massive choir, full orchestra, and six soloists this is a huge and powerful work.
Recommended recording: Horst Stein, with the Wiener Singverein and Symphoniker, on Profil.
Josquin Des Prez - Preater Rerum Seriem"
This is no normal scheme of things:
God and man is born
of a virgin mother.
From the twentieth century, we turn now to the Renaissance, and the undisputed master composer of the period, Josquin Des Prez.
A series of motifs around a Latin hymn to Mary, this is arguably Josquin's finest work. The contrast between the lower voices and and the tenor and the upper voices and the soprano lends a wonderful texture to this stunning piece.
Recommended recording: Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars, on Gimell.
Tomás Luis de Victoria - O Magnum Mysterium
Moving now to one of the most significant composers of the counter-reformation, we find ourselves in 16th century Spain. Victoria is one of the most celebrated sacred music composers.
O Magnum Mysterium is a motet drawn from the Matins of Christmas responsory:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Recommended recording: George Guest directing the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, on Argo
Michael Praetorius - In dulci jubilo
Staying with the theme of polyphony, but transition from counter-reformation to Lutheran chorale, Praetorius produced 'In Dulci Jubilo' as part of his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix & panegyrica, specifying it be performed "with all sorts of instruments and human voices, also trumpets and kettledrums.”
It takes as its text the macaronic hymn "In Dulci Jubilo"
In dulci jubilo,
Nun singet und seid froh!
Unsers Herzens Wonne
Leit in praesepio;
Und leuchtet wie die Sonne
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O!
Popularly recorded in English by Mike Oldfield in 1976, and known as "Good Christian Men Rejoice", this 17th century setting of the untranslated text is absolutely delightful.
Recommended recording: Richard Marlow with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, on Conifer Classics.
Jakuk Jan Ryba - Czech Christmas Mass
Since my introduction to the operas of Leoš Janáček, I've developed a een interest in Czech music. Bohemian Christmases invariably feature Hej mistře! the Christmas Mass composed by Jakub Šimon Jan Ryba, a contemporary of Beethoven and Haydn.
The Czech tradition of nativity scene making goes back to the Jesuits in the 16th century, and is notable for including scenes from everyday life - traders, craftspeople, musicians and farmers all bring gifts.
Against this setting, Ryba paints a beautiful pastoral, and quintessentially Czech portrait.
Recommended recording: František Xaver Thuri, with the Czech Madrigalists Orchestra and Choir, on Naxos.
Arthur Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël
We must not forget the context of the nativity. This is not a happy world. The people of Israel, now ruled over by a foreign power, mostly scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamia, still long for a Messiah. They still cry out.
Honegger begins with Psalm 130 - Out of the depths I cry to you Lord. This is not immediately easy listening, a tone of lament, and an ultimately dissonant march. I played this earlier in the week, and the response from some family members was not positive. However, all is not lament and dissonance.
The song of ascents concludes with a cry of "Oh Come", which introduces "Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel". Hope turns to joy, as as the birth is announced, before the work concludes with another Psalm: Praise the Lord all you nations.
The cantata was composed in 1953, and is Honegger's last work. The story it tells, the interweaving of French and German carols, so fitting for a Swiss composer, and the interplay between organ, children's choir, mixed choirs, and baritone solo make for an emotional work.
Recommended recording: Thierry Fischer with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Hyperion CDA67688
That rounds up my seasonal music recommendations. I'm confident this will have given you some new ideas, and hopefully, in the tradition of thread pulling that I introduced earlier this week, you'll find this pair of articles also provides you with new avenues to explore.