Are you feeling like the Christmas grinch? Fed up with Christmas shopping? Eaten too many mince pies? Concerned Santa and Rudolph may ignore you as you haven’t been good this year? Don’t worry – help is at hand. Pour yourself a glass of mulled wine, relax, and listen to our selection of the best classical Christmas music including Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Mozart’s Alleluia. Soon your Christmas blues will fade away (Bah! Humbug!) and your Christmas spirit will be restored (Alleluia!). Merry Christmas everyone!
Listen to the best Classical Christmas music on Spotify and scroll down to explore our favourite pieces of classical Christmas music.
Best Classical Christmas Music: Top Pieces
‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’ from Messiah – George Frideric Handel
Handel composed Messiah, an English language oratorio depicting the story of Jesus Christ and one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music, in 1741. He created a piece based on three concepts: the story of the nativity and its prophecy; that of the crucifixion and redemption of mankind; and a commentary on the Christian soul and its victory over death. After an initially modest public reception the oratorio gained in popularity and eventually became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral pieces in Western music. Handel announces the birth of Christ with the well-known chorus ‘For Unto Us A Child Is Born’, one of the most glorious expressions of sacred joy.
The Christmas Oratorio – Johann Sebastian Bach
The Christmas Oratorio is an oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach intended for performance in church during the Christmas season. Bach’s popular Christmas work, composed in 1734, is one of the choral masterpieces of the Baroque era. For the Christmas Oratorio Bach cleverly used music he had previously composed and adapted it for a new purpose. The Christmas Oratorio is in six parts, each part being intended for performance on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period. The first part (for Christmas Day) describes the birth of Jesus, the second (for December 26) the annunciation to the shepherds, the third (for December 27) the adoration of the shepherds, the fourth (for New Year’s Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the fifth (for the first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi, and the sixth (for Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi.
‘Alleluia’ from Exultate, Jubilate – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed Exsultate, Jubilate (Rejoice, Be Glad), a three-movement motet, while he was staying in Milan for the production of his opera Lucio Silla during Christmas 1772. Exsultate, Jubilate is considered to have been composed between December 26, 1772 (the premiere of Lucio Silla) and January 17, 1773 and was written for the Nativity. The piece was first performed in 1773 just a few days before Mozart’s seventeenth birthday. The final movement ends with the brilliant ‘Alleluia’, the most famous part of the motet, in which Mozart sets to music just that one word.
Concerto Grosso In G Minor – Arcangelo Corelli
Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso In G Minor, known commonly as the Christmas Concerto, was published posthumously in 1714 as part of Corelli’s twelve concerti grossi. The concerto includes the inscription “Fatto per la notte di Natale” (“Made for the night of Christmas”). It was composed around 1690, since there is a record of Corelli having that year performed a Christmas concerto for the enjoyment of his then-new patron Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. The high drama of the Nativity scene is depicted from the outset and pastoral visions of nearby shepherds provide soothing contemplation at the work’s conclusion.
In The Bleak Midwinter – Gustav Holst
In The Bleak Midwinter is based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rosetti first published under the title A Christmas Carol in 1972 in Scribner’s Monthly, an American magazine. The simple and sombre poem focuses on the birth of Jesus Christ and the nativity scene including the manger, a stable, and the Wise Men. It wasn’t until 1906 that the poem was set to a melody composed by Gustav Holst, published under the title In The Bleak Midwinter in The English Hymnal. The hymn is one of Holst’s most popular compositions and one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music.
Magnificat – Johann Sebastian Bach
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 and including four hymn arrangements, which was originally performed on Christmas Eve 1723. The following year Bach produced a new version of the Magnificat, in D major without the hymn arrangements, to be performed at the feast of the Visitation in July. Magnificat is one of Bach’s most popular vocal works and one of the best pieces of classical Christmas music.
‘Let The Bright Seraphim’ from Samson – George Frideric Handel
Samson is a three-act oratorio by George Frideric Handel and considered to be one of his finest dramatic works. This version of the biblical story, derived from Milton’s Samson Agonistes, opens with Samson already blinded by the Philistines after his betrayal by Delilah. The well-known and final aria, ‘Let The Bright Seraphim’, comes at the very end of Samson, just before the final chorus. Sung by an anonymous Israelitish Woman, the aria summons the celestial hosts of seraphim and cherubim to hail the dead hero and ushers Samson to a glorious heaven.
‘Ombra Mai Fu’ from Serse – George Frideric Handel
‘Ombra Mai Fu’, also known as Handel’s ‘Largo’, is the opening aria from the 1738 opera Serse by George Frideric Handel. The opera was a commercial failure however, in the 19th century, this aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel’s best-known pieces. It’s one of opera’s more unusual love songs, performed by Xerxes as he admires the shade of a plane tree. On Christmas Eve 1906 Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor and radio pioneer, broadcast the first AM radio program, and started with a phonograph record of ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ – the aria was therefore the first piece of music to be broadcast on radio.
A Hymn To The Virgin – Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten composed A Hymn To The Virgin, one of the most well-known and best-loved of his choral pieces, when he only 16 years old. The text of the hymn is a medieval praise of Mary from an anonymous poem from the 13th century included in the Oxford Book Of English Verse. Britten composed A Hymn To The Virgin in a single day while confined to his school’s infirmary. Britten did not have access to standard music paper, so staves were drawn on plain paper for the original manuscript. The choral work was always loved by Britten and was one of only two pieces written by the composer to be performed at his funeral service.
Ave Maria – Charles Gounod, Johann Sebastian Bach
Ave Maria is a popular and much-recorded setting of the traditional Catholic prayer Ave Maria asking for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. The piece consists of a melody by the French Romantic composer Charles Gounod that he superimposed over a very slightly modified version of the ‘Prelude No. 1 in C Major’ from J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, published in 1722. The Ave Maria is one of the most widely spoken prayers of Christianity after the Lord’s Prayer.