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Best Classical Christmas Music: 10 Essential Pieces

Discover our selection of the best classical Christmas music including Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’.

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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!

Listen to Classical Christmas on Apple Music and Spotify and scroll down to discover our selection of the best classical Christmas music.

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.

Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ, H 130 - Arr. Chris Hazell - L'adieu des bergers

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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.

Britten: Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 - This Little Babe

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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.

Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum Suite, S.186 - Transcription by Vladimir Horowitz - 10. Ehemals

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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.

Byrd: O magnum mysterium

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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.

Finzi: In terra pax Op. 39 - And Lo, the Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them

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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.

J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243 - I. Chorus: "Magnificat"

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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’.

Handel: Messiah, HWV 56 / Pt. 2 - XLII. "Hallelujah"

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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!

Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kijé, Symphonic Suite, Op. 60 - IV. Troïka

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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.

Lang Lang - J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 - X. Sinfonia (Arr. Saradjian)

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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 sugar plum 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.

Tchaikovsky: Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy - from The Nutcracker Suite (Animation)

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Listen to our recommended recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite , performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, now.

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