The Perfect Christmas Music

Well, the week before Christmas is a difficult time to blog, especially when my semester only ended six days earlier, and I had been prevented from Christmas shopping the last two weekends by a blizzard and cold, respectively. (My son’s birthday is Dec. 23, too.) So I’ve been absent. And I’m not really the type to send out the obligatory Christmas greeting – just because it’s obligatory. For the record, I am happy to express the usual lip service to peace on earth for us all, and all that.

But I do have a triumphant bit of Christmas information to report. Every year on Christmas morning I get out of bed, and my first act is to put on a CD of Christmas music. All my life, my dad would play Handel’s Messiah, interspersed with recordings of Christmas songs by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So over the years I’ve tried different recordings of the Messiah, Bach cantatas, choral music by the American William Billings, Renaissance choral music, English choirs singing Holst and Walton arrangements, and so on and so on. Some of it’s too hackneyed, some too familiar, some too intrusive. But this year it finally occurred to me to play the nativity music, in fact the entire Christmas oratorio section, from Franz Liszt’s oratorio Christus. It was the perfect accompaniment to a mellow Christmas morning. The Christmas oratorio section is mostly instrumental (in imitation of Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliet), the choral parts are mostly low-key and lovely. The nativity music is fully as charming as any Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies and far more interesting and original – surely the only Christmas music ever written in 5/4 meter (actually, 2/4 and 3/4 in alternation). The Easter music on CD 3 is heavily dramatic and emotional, of course, but for Christ’s birth and the “March of the Three Kings” Liszt showed for an entire hour what a delicate, light touch he was capable of with chorus and orchestra. No less an authority than German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has called Christus the greatest oratorio of the 19th century, and I totally agree – yet Liszt is vastly underrated in America, excoriated because he was far too complex and Protean a figure, and mixed in a ton of superficial showpieces along with his masterworks.

In any case, sorry the recommendation comes too late for this year, but if you received a Tower or Amazon gift certificate and have an eye to next Christmas (or even Easter), Liszt’s Christus is one of the 19th century’s mostly undiscovered gems. And there’s a superb recording by Antal Dorati on Hungaraton. So, happy holidays. Back to the postclassical world soon, but even I can’t steer you towards much postclassical Christmas music.