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From Praetorius to Britten: the ultimate Christmas classical playlist

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Christmas seems to really bring out the best in composers. The classical music that makes up the playlist we've put together below is vibrant, tuneful and extroverted. It's the kind of music that you play for an instant hit of endorphins. I guarantee that when you hear the opening strains of "Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen," from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, you'll feel just like you did on Christmas Day when you were seven years old and finally got that pogo stick you always wanted.

Except that this playlist comes with no risk of injury and hospitalization. Probably.

1. Praetorius: Christmas Vespers

Michael Praetorius could write tunes that just stick with you — the kinds of tunes that you can hear, and not remember where you know them from. Isn't familiarity what Christmas music is all about?

2. Handel: Messiah

Obviously. It's so ubiquitous every December that even the lesser known bits are still pretty familiar. Like this one:

3. Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

The big-ticket composers of the 20th century seem to have passed over Christmas music — or, at least the sort of explicitly Christmassy music that Praetorius and Handel wrote. But this choral piece by Benjamin Britten is a classic — especially this bit.

4. Bach: Christmas Oratorio

Think of it as Messiah's smarter big brother. This massive opus has countless highlights, but the glorious final chorus is the most traditionally festive music that Bach ever wrote. 

5. Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker

Here's the other most familiar classical Christmas piece ever. But, perhaps oddly, The Nutcracker's overture — the music that kicks the whole thing off — hasn't become nearly as ingrained in the public consciousness as the "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy," or the famous "Trepak." That's a shame, because it's as fun and elegant as either of them. 

6. Mendelssohn: Vom Himmel hoch

Christmas cantatas make up a significant chunk of the seasonal classical music that we still hear today. And, although the most familiar ones are by Bach (the Christmas Oratorio is actually just six cantatas in succession), there are great Christmas cantatas littered throughout history. Here's Mendelssohn's.

7. Fauré: Pavane

You could argue that there's nothing intrinsically Christmassy about this. But, apparently, Jethro Tull disagrees.

8. Vivaldi: Concerto in C for two trumpets

Vivaldi did write a proper Christmas concerto, but it's kind of boring. Instead, check out this concerto for not just one buttwo trumpets. Because nothing says holiday revelry like trumpets. 

9. Mahler: Symphony No. 4

It starts with sleigh bells and exudes a pervasive sense of childlike wonderment. That's Christmassy enough for me. Here's the whole glorious symphony conducted by the late Claudio Abbado. 

10. Schoenberg: Weihnachtsmusik

Remember how I said that the big-ticket composers of the 20th century didn't write much Christmas music? Well, here's another surprising and welcome exception: Arnold Schoenberg left his tone rows out in the cold when he composed this lovely, intimate piece based on Praetorius's "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen." Listen for the moment when he shoehorns "Silent Night" into the accompaniment.