Christmas is steeped in musical tradition, and its classical canon glistens with festive jewels. Our selection of the best classical Christmas music is a snapshot of many Christmases-past: feelings of joy, celebration, reflection and nostalgia are bound up in these beautiful, timeless scores. Pour yourself a glass of mulled wine, relax, and listen to these classical Christmas masterpieces featuring magnificent choral works and orchestral fantasies. Merry Christmas!
Best Classical Christmas Music: 10 Essential Pieces
10: Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ
Berlioz’s musical telling of The Childhood of Christ makes for perfect Christmas listening. This oratorio, written in 1854, tells the Holy story from Herod’s decree in Judea to the journey of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Christ. From the drama of ‘The Dream of Herod’ to the lilting tranquillity of ‘The Shepherd’s Farewell’, Berlioz’s warm-blooded, romanticism brings depth and colour to the biblical story.
9: Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Britten’s Ceremony of Carols showcases a host of heavenly voices accompanied simply by angelic harp. The use of only treble voices evokes a sense of child-like innocence, creating a warm, magical atmosphere. The piece itself is a selection of medieval carols, still in the original language, preserved in Britten’s refreshing compositional idiom. A wonderful classical stocking-filler.
8: Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum
Liszt’s Christmas Tree Suite for solo piano is a classical Christmas delight. The twelve pieces are, by Liszt’s standards, wonderfully simplistic in their composition and not too challenging to play; indeed, they were dedicated to Liszt’s eldest grandchild and sing of childlike wonder and innocence. This connection to younger generations permeates the score which, steeped in festive nostalgia, is a lesser-known gem in Liszt’s piano oeuvre and one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music.
7: Byrd: O Magnum Mysterium
A Christmas message from 400-years-ago, delivered in glorious choral counterpoint. Written in 1607, Bryd’s O Magnum Mysterium, is a beautiful motet for 4-part choir, and is a meditation on the wondrous Holy birth. A warm, subtle blend of ethereal voices with deep, resonant harmonies relay the text:
O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament
that even the animals saw
the new-born Lord
lying in a manger.
Blessed Virgin, whose womb
was worthy to bear
our Lord Christ
There is a tangible profundity to this piece: it feels vast yet intimate, celebratory yet reflective.
6: Finzi: In Terra Pax (On Earth, Peace)
Picture a frosty winter morning. Hazy, muted strings and glowing harp gradually melt away, warmed by the depth of a pure, pristine baritone solo, angelic soprano and a choir of heavenly voices. In Terra Pax takes its text from St Luke’s account of the first Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, flanked by verses from Robert Bridges’ poem, Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913. The listener is at once swept away by the enchanting narrative and enveloped in a mass of warm strings and voices in this magical Christmas scene-setter.
5: Bach: Magnificat
Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Magnificat is a musical setting of the biblical canticle Magnificat – the Latin text of the story of the Virgin Mary as told in the Gospel of St. Luke. In 1723, soon after he had been appointed the Director of Music and Organist of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Bach set the text of the Magnificat, originally composed in Eb major, which was first performed on Christmas Eve 1723. The following year Bach produced a new version, which he transposed into D major, to be performed at the feast of the Visitation in July. Magnificat is one of Bach’s most popular vocal works.
4: Handel: Messiah
An epic rumination on the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, Handel’s 1742 oratorio is a stalwart fixture in both Easter and yuletide programmes and one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music. The first part, often referred to as the ‘Christmas’ part, features the iconic choruses ‘And He Shall Purify’ and ‘For unto us a Child is Born’. Performances of the Christmas part of the work are often concluded with the endlessly joyful ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.
3: Prokofiev: ‘Troika’ from Lieutenant Kijé suite
This exultant orchestral melody is probably best known as the climax of Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’, but it was originally written by none other than Prokofiev for his Lieutenant Kijé suite. A ‘troika’ is a three-horse Russian sled: the excited flurry of strings, shimmering bells and festive brass depict a magical sleighride through the glistening snow. What could be more Christmassy!
2: Bach: Christmas Oratorio
This almost three-hour choral festive extravaganza is one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is divided into 6 cantatas, each to be performed in the days following Christmas. The first part, performed on Christmas Day, pronounces the Holy birth; the second, for the 26th, describes the annunciation to the shepherds; the third, the adoration of the shepherds, and so on. Each section has its own distinctive character, brought to life in Bach’s masterful composition, and is in equal parts intense, reflective, and jubilant.
1: Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s timeless ballet, The Nutcracker, is top of our list. A Christmas Eve ball, toys that magically come to life, the enchanted land of the Sweets, waltzing snowflakes and dancing sugarplum fairies – this is a Christmas cracker of a piece. Tchaikovsky’s score captures the childlike wonder of this festive fairy tale with resplendent orchestra, twinkling percussion and, at moments, soft sweeping choir. The Nutcracker is an absolute classic – no Christmas would be complete without it.
Our recommended recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker performed by Los Angeles Philharmonic & Gustavo Dudamel can be bought here.