Friday 15 December 2017

Classical: Christmas music for the whole year

Miracles of music: Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Miracles of music: Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

George Hamilton

Good King Wenceslas last looked out on the feast of Stephen. That would be today, wouldn't it? Which is as good a reason as any to consider the place that music has over the Christmas season. Not just the obvious, like the aforementioned, or the chestnuts-roasting-by-the-open-fire variety, rather music from the classical canon composed with Christmas in mind.

We could start with Handel's Messiah, even if that had its inaugural outing just after Easter. And there was a reason for that.

Only the first of the Messiah's three parts is specifically concerned with Advent. It's less of a celebration of Christmas, more of a journey through the Christian year, from start to finish.

It's the magnificent exhilaration of the music that has propelled it to a position of prominence in programming for this festive season.

For something devoted entirely to the Christmas story we have to look elsewhere - to Johann Sebastian Bach. He created quite possibly the greatest Christmas music ever written.

It's now known as the Christmas Oratorio, though when it was conceived, it was six separate pieces, for six separate church services, starting on Christmas Day, and running through to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

But the six pieces were designed as an integrated whole, a complete telling of the story from the birth of Jesus, through to the arrival of the Magi.

In the context of Christmas, you couldn't ask for more from the music. It bursts into life with a trumpet salute by way of introduction to the chorus of celebration - Jauchzet, frohlocket: rejoice, be glad!

Calm follows in the Pastorale. The Shepherds learn of the birth and head for Bethlehem. A tenor voice announces the arrival of the Three Wise Men, and the collection concludes with another trumpet celebration for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Bach's music takes us into the New Year. Tchaikovsky's secular Christmas classic can be enjoyed the whole year through. His last ballet, The Nutcracker, has become a seasonal staple in the United States, and there's every reason.

The story of the little girl and her Christmas present of a nutcracker in the shape of a toy soldier, who then comes to life as a handsome prince and takes her off on a great adventure to the Sugar Plum Fairy's magical kingdom of sweets, is the perfect tale.

It made for a fabulous evening's entertainment early this year - the ballet staged in a winter wonderland was visually stunning.

Tchaikovsky himself knew he was on to a winner. He reworked the score into an orchestral suite and published it before the ballet had even had its premiere.

It proved a wise move, for the theatrical production didn't go down that well and really only took off when it was brought to the West in the 1940s. The music, though, was an instant success and can certainly stand on its own two feet.

The conductor Simon Rattle called it "one of the great miracles in music". Writing in the introduction to his 2-CD recording of The Nutcracker with the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI 631621-2), he described the orchestration as "remarkable and revolutionary".

The sound he coaxes from the ensemble he's led since 2002 is sensational, bringing warmth and vitality to perennial favourites with the highlight for me the blissful 'Waltz of the Flowers'

Christmas may have inspired the story, but it's music for all seasons.

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