Nine Obscure Classical Carols to Brighten Your Christmas Playlist

By Andrew Stiefel

If you’ve been playing your favorite Christmas playlist on repeat since July, it might be getting a little stale. But don’t worry. We have some recommendations that will stretch your playlist through these long winter nights.

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

You will want to put this delightful collection of carols for treble voices and harp on repeat. Britten composed these in 1942 while traveling by sea to return home to England from the United States. The opening procession is based on an old Gregorian antiphon, “Hodie Christus natus est.” The movement below, Balulalow, is meant to be a lullaby.

Higdon: Love Came Down

Jennifer Higdon is one of today’s pre-eminent American composers. She is probably best known for her orchestral work, Blue Cathedral, which frequently appears on symphonic programs, but her carol for soprano, choir and harp, however, is equally delightful.

Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium

American composer Morten Lauridsen is a prolific choral composer and happens to be a native of the Pacific Northwest — he worked for the forest service as a fire lookout at Mount St. Helens before trading his binoculars for pen and paper. O Magnum Mysterium is one of his sacred motets and the glowing, simple choral writing lends it a peaceful warmth.

Muhly: Whispered and Revealed

Whispered and Revealed by American composer Nico Muhly appears on the same album as Love Came Down by Jennifer Higdon, but stylistically, it is completely different. Muhly studied with Philip Glass and hints of that minimalist influence appear in the music.

Liszt: Christmas Tree Suite

This delightful series of piano arrangements by Franz Liszt is a contrast to the virtuosic, fiery music of his youth. He wrote this lovely suite to play for his daughter and a few friends at Christmas. He was 70 years old at the time and had traded his concert tails for the clergyman’s robes. The music reflects a delicate and sensitive embrace of the season.

Arvo Pärt: Bogoróditse dyévo

If you’re wanting something brighter and energetic, this delightful carol from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt will fit nicely. This bright arrangement of Ave Maria is an unexpected departure from a composer known for his solemn and expansive writing.

Poulenc: Four Motets for Christmas

French composer Francis Poulenc doesn’t appear on symphonic programs very often, but his choral and chamber music is inventive, colorful and great fun to listen too. This suite of four short motets are a mix of reverence and joy — perfect music for the season.

Scarlatti: O di Betlemme altera

Scarlatti’s graceful cantata, O di Betlemme altera, was likely commissioned by an Italian noble to celebrate the holiday. It would have been played in-between church services and likely before the main Christmas Eve feast. The music is light and energetic with just the right amount of wonder.

Schoenberg: Weihnachtsmusik (Christmas Music)

Schoenberg is often cast as the bogeyman of contemporary classical music, but this delightful carol written for his family should definitely be in your playlist. Scored for two violins, cello, piano and harmonium, the main tune is the German carol Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen. Listen for Silent Night which makes a later appearance in the strings.

Download the Playlist

If you use Spotify, you can download and listen to the complete playlist below.

Posted on December 22, 2016

READ MORE BEYOND THE STAGE