Composers at Christmas

We explore six composers who loved and loathed Christmas....

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Composers at Christmas
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Benjamin Britten

 

Santa or Scrooge:           Santa

Why:

In 1932, at the age of 19, Benjamin Britten recorded his family Christmas in his diary. At home in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the composer performed a pantomime alongside his relatives to celebrate the festive season! His presents included Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini from fellow composer and mentor Frank Bridge.

Recommended listening:

‘In Freezing Winter Night’, A Ceremony of Carols

The eighth movement of Britten’s choral masterpiece describes the birth of Christ. Britten wrote his A Ceremony of Carols whilst travelling back to England from America in 1942; with the U-Boat threat a clear and present danger, it seems particularly touching that it was at this time Britten penned a piece of such hope and tranquillity. He is the ideal composer with whom you can celebrate this season of peace and joyfulness!

 

 

 

Richard Wagner

 

Santa or Scrooge:           Santa

Why:

In 1870, Wagner put his compositional skills to good use by writing a piece of music for his wife, Cosima. Her birthday just happened to be on Christmas Day. The Siegfried Idyll was premiered on the steps of the composer’s villa on Christmas morning; conductor Hans Richter played the trumpet part! Cosima recorded, ‘When I woke up I heard a sound… music was sounding, and what music!’

Recommended listening:

Siegfried Idyll

Upon receiving this gift, Cosima wrote that ‘I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household’. This recording presents the original version for a small chamber ensemble of 13 players. The sense of intimate celebration this conveys is perfect for the family celebrations at Christmas!

 

 

 

Gustav Mahler

 

Santa or Scrooge:          Scrooge

Why:

Not everyone enjoyed Christmas. Mahler was haunted by a sense of isolation and despair; in Leipzig in 1886, the composer-conductor wrote to a friend that he had ‘spent a sad Christmas Eve once again sitting at home all by myself’, going on to comment how ‘the whole world through which I am destined to wander without rest was blotted out by a few tear-drops.’

Recommended listening:

‘Der Abschied’, Das Lied von der Erde

The sixth and final movement of Mahler’s monumental composition is scored for two voices and orchestra. The movement’s title translates as ‘The Farewell’. Hardly cheerful Christmas music, but its sense of introspection provides striking evidence of the composer’s psyche, making him a fitting Scrooge.

 

 

 

Frédéric Chopin

 

Santa or Scrooge:           Santa

Why:

Chopin appears to have found solace in the reflective spirituality of Christmas. In his Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20, the composer quotes the Christmas lullaby Lulajze, Jezuniu (Sleep, Little Jesus). Following the November Uprising, and having left his native Poland forever, Chopin was missing his family. With an uncertain future, the Scherzo provided him with some relief by acting as an outlet for his anxiety.

Recommended listening:

Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20

The beautiful tenderness of the lullaby that appears in the centre of this Scherzo allows for a moment of peace in this unsettling period of Chopin’s life. With its personal connotations of family and home, this is an ideal piece for Christmas!

 

 

 

Krzysztof Penderecki

 

Santa or Scrooge:           A little bit of both….

Why:

Polish composer Penderecki wrote an entire symphony that used quotations of a Christmas carol as a method of unifying the work. Informally known as the Christmas Symphony, Penderecki frequently quotes the carol Silent Night throughout.

Recommended listening:

Symphony No. 2

In the dissonant, building climaxes punctuated by the brass section, the influence of Shostakovich is clear. The four-note motif derived from Silent Night struggles to mitigate the sense of darkness that pervades this work. This is a Scrooge’s depiction of Christmas…

 

 

 

Felix Mendelssohn

 

Santa or Scrooge:           Santa

Why:

Mendelssohn moved to Berlin in November 1843, and spent much of the festive season with eight members of his family. On Christmas Eve, he wrote to his youngest sister Rebecka, then staying in Italy; ‘this is the time for a chat. If only I could have one with you in reality!’ On Christmas Day, he conducted at the Berlin Cathedral, leading a performance of a new psalm he had set.

Recommended listening:

‘Christmas’, 6 Sprüche

Mendelssohn composed this jovial piece in 1843 for the Cathedral Choir in Berlin. Its declarative unison opening soon gives way to a sprightly homophony, with the dotted rhythms conveying the joy of the festive season; it was premiered on Christmas Day, 1843.

 

We can hardly resist including the composer’s famous setting of Charles Wesley’s words, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing…. English organist William H. Cummings adapted a previous work by Mendelssohn to fit Wesley’s text. The music? A secular cantata to celebrate the invention of the printing press! Even stranger, Wesley originally planned for the words to be sung to the same melody as his Easter song, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

 

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