Christmas Songs

Last week I wrote about my favourite Christmas albums; this week it’s time to look at individual songs. I can’t claim to have as definitive a list as this one, but here goes, in no particular order other than a loose ‘things I like to listen to once in a while, things I really like all the time, and things I like once in a while when I remember them.’

Puer natus est nobis (Gregorian chant)

Blame Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery, the 8th Chief Inspector Gamache novel, is set in a monastery; the story devotes a good deal of attention to chanting and neumes. Who, after reading, could resist?


Tota pulchra es Maria (Maurice Durufle)

This version is sung by Vox Humana. The theology is iffy, but hey, it’s beautiful. Also it was darned difficult to learn.


And now we get to my real favourite:

O magnum mysterium (Tomas Luis de Victoria)

The Sixteen are brilliant. Victoria was beyond brilliant. Those dancing alleluias at the end —

The title, which is also the opening words, translates as O great mystery.

If you like to see the music as you hear it, here you go with The Cambridge Singers.


Lullay my liking (Gustav Holst)

Nothing compares to actually singing these yourself as part of a good choir, but here you go. The Winchester Cathedral Choir here (1986) has crisp intonation and good pitch. Also, those harmonies!


Adam lay ybounden (Boris Ord)

Beautiful melodies with dubious medieval theology: be still, my beating heart. And this theology is exceedingly dubious indeed. It’s also set to a tune that twines its way through your ears into your blood and muscles. King’s College Cambridge here, setting a snapping pace to set off the interwoven harmonies.


A Ceremony of Carols (Benjamin Britten)

The story is that during WWII, Britten was returning to Britain from the states. The ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he found a book of medieval poetry; and on the remainder of the voyage home, he set some of these poems to music. (Dubious medieval theology! Britten’s twisty wonderful music! My heart!) The whole of A Ceremony of Carols is so worth listening to – find a live performance in your area – but if I may draw your attention to three songs in particular: Hodie; This Little Babe; and Deo Gracias. (But listen to the whole! Please! Trust me on this!)

Hodie, aka Hodie Christus natus est, opens and closes the piece; the choir enters and exits the sanctuary singing this. Extraordinarily lovely.

This little babe is the coolest. Britten invented reverb. The words are metal as anything, which is to say they vividly reflect the contrast between worldly, violent power and the rule of the infant.

This is the Maîtrise de Radio France at the Victoires de la Musique, Paris, 2012.

Deo Gracias is a driven, high-energy reworking of Adam lay ybounden. It’s rather difficult to describe the effect. Very staccato, very tip-toes, like military mice, with these ribbons of chorus streaming down like a waterfall and snatched away again.

Here is a succinct history and description of individual pieces. The Antioch Chamber Ensemble has a complete recording of A Ceremony of Carols in two parts, here and here.

A Ceremony of Carols is an exceedingly strange piece of music, and it’s fantastic.


And now for the hymn book.

One of my absolute favourites, in part because nobody else will sing it and it’s so good and so obscure, is Comfort, comfort you my people (tune: Genevan 42, from the Genevan Psalter 1551). Medieval music with absolutely fantastic words. The opening lines:

Comfort, comfort you me people; tell of peace, thus says our God;

comfort those who sit in darkness bowed beneath oppression’s load.

See? See?

And, as I discovered only because I was looking for videos for this post, a Presbyterian church somewhere in the USA actually sang this with medievally instrumentation. Woo!


The angel Gabriel from heaven came and Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming are beautiful and underappreciated. (That said, I would hate to hear them on the radio. Ugh.)

The Taize community in France is known for contemplative music; may I point to Magnificat (sing out my soul); Nunc Dimittis; Prepare the way of the Lord; Gloria 3; Glory to God; and O Poverty. One of the best things about Taize music, aside from singing with others (harmonies! living, breathing harmonies!), is that the songs can be vaulting upward in tone, as here, or quietly meditative; you can sing them joyfully or as your heart aches; sing in whatever your mood and they fit.


Honourable mentions go to Walking in the Air (from The Snowman)**

**BUT IT’S SAD if you remember the whole story.

and to Ave verum corpus (Mozart), which probably every university boys’ choir in Britain has sung in the history of university boys’ choirs. With good reason, I guess.

ALSO this song has serious Lion King vibes; want to bet that Hans Zimmer sang this at some point?

Thanks for sticking with me during these very self-indulgent music posts. What are your favourite Christmas songs to listen to and to sing? Hit me up with recommendations, sacred, secular, weird medieval stuff, pop remixes, anything. As long as it’s not ‘Santa, Baby,’ I won’t judge 🙂

(Seriously. I hate that song.)

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