It’s the time of year when, everywhere you go, Christmas music is playing. Or is it?
A lot of what you hear in the stores and on the radio in December might be better named Christmastime music, since much of it has little to do with the historical event it is supposedly celebrating. Don’t get me wrong—I like the fun stuff, too. Occasionally a few actual Christmas songs do make their way into the playlists, whether favorite carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or more recent standards such as “Do You Hear What I Hear?” But there is a rich heritage of sacred Christmas music both old and new that the broader culture neglects. Even Sirius/XM radio has cut its classical Christmas station from a month-long run a few years ago to a pathetic three days in 2014.
Below is a sampling of some of the best Christmas music you don’t hear unless you know where to look for it. If you aren’t familiar with these pieces, they may not even sound like Christmas songs to you. Yet each is a profound poetic and musical expression of the miracle of the Incarnation. Enjoy—for the first time or the hundredth. (“The Messiah” could be its own list, so has been intentionally left out of this one.)
1) “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come”
If you’ve sung in a traditional church choir, chances are you’ve sung this one. It was published in 1953, and was composed by Ruth and Paul Manz as they held vigil at the bedside of their seriously ill three-year-old son (who did survive). The rest is history. Ruth Manz died in 2008 and Paul Manz in 2009.
2) “O Magnum Mysterium”
Many composers have set this ancient Latin text, which ponders the mysteries of the incarnation and virgin birth. My favorite version is that of sixteenth-century Spanish priest, Tomas Luis de Victoria. The meditative beginning is followed by a dance-like and joyful middle that leads to the final triumphant conclusion: “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!”
3) “Salvation Is Created”
Pavel Tschesnokov (1877-1944) composed this choral work in 1912, not long before the Russian Revolution outlawed sacred artistic expression. The text is hauntingly simple: “Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia.”
4) “The Lamb”
British composer John Tavener’s (1944-2013) setting of the William Blake poem may seem misplaced in a list of Christmas music until one remembers that the lamb is a symbol of Christ. The question in the first half of the poem, “Little lamb, who made thee?” is answered in the second half by stating that the Creator and the Lamb are one and the same: “He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child.”
The YouTube link for this doesn’t allow embeds, so click through.
5) “What Sweeter Music”
The lyrics say it all: “What sweeter music can we bring, Than a carol, for to sing The birth of this our heavenly King? Awake the voice! Awake the string!” By the incomparable John Rutter.
6) “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob”
The most famous movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s unfinished “Christus” oratorio, featuring the Philipp Nicolai chorale, “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.”
7) “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted”
With text by Richard Wilbur and tune by David Hurd, this twentieth-century carol juxtaposes the journey to Bethlehem with the road to Calvary: “This child through David’s city / Shall ride in triumph by; the palm shall strew its branches, And ev’ry stone shall cry. And ev’ry stone shall cry. Though heavy, dull, and dumb, And lie within the roadway / To pave His kingdom come.”
8) “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt”
With text by Jaroslav Vajda and music by Carl Schalk, this modern masterwork invites each of us to join the shepherds at the manger. “Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angell’s word, I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred; But there is room and welcome there for me, But there is room and welcome there for me.”
9) “In Dulci Jubilo”
Bach. Enough said. “Oh, that we were there!”
10) “All Is Well”
Contemporary Christian artist Michael W. Smith wrote this gorgeous statement of what the arrival of the Christ child means for a desperate world.
11) “He Is Christmas”
Take 6’s Christmas CD has long been a tree-decorating tradition in my house. “To all the world, Oh! He is Christmas!”
12) “In the First Light”
The a cappella group Glad takes us from the hiddenness of God in the manger to the glorious day of His return.
If you want to listen to these twelve songs all together in continuous play, The Federalist staff have created this YouTube playlist for you. Merry Christmas!