The Specialist's Guide to Orchestral Christmas Carols

Jeremy Nicholas Wed 12th December 2018

Music for Christmas takes many forms, as we all know. Jeremy Nicholas recommends recordings of pieces in the medley-esque orchestral and/or choral genre based on selections of popular carols

Continuing a seasonal tradition: The Boston Pops Orchestra, for which Leroy Anderson wrote A Christmas Festival in 1950 (photo: Stu Rosner)

Continuing a seasonal tradition: The Boston Pops Orchestra, for which Leroy Anderson wrote A Christmas Festival in 1950 (photo: Stu Rosner)

There are Christmas cantatas, there are Christmas oratorios (Bach and Saint-Saëns, among others). There are tone poems of Christmas (Bax’s Christmas Eve on the Mountains), and suites (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve). There is even a Christmas Symphony (though how Krzysztof Penderecki’s unwaveringly sinister Symphony No 2 acquired that nickname merely by seeming to quote a phrase of Silent Night is a mystery). And we must not forget the countless Christmas pop songs that blight the lives of shop assistants from November onwards, for instance ‘White Christmas’, ‘Frosty the Snowman’, ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ (named last year as the most hated Christmas song of all time).

All these, from Corelli’s 1714 Christmas Concerto (Op 6 No 8) onwards, consist of original music by their various composers. Then there are works that use Christmas carols and hymns for their material. Composers of instrumental (usually organ) pieces tend to take one tune and write a set of variations on it. But there is another Christmas music genre: choral and/or orchestral works that weave a selection of seasonal melodies into a fantasy, overture or some equivalent. The earliest of these seems to be William Henry Fry’s 1853 Santa Claus (see the top choice here), but with the growing popularity of Christmas concerts (always a nice little earner for orchestras), the 20th century saw the advent of medleys and pot-pourris in various shapes and forms. Perhaps not surprisingly, whatever the individual harmonic language of the composer, all the tunes employed in these are the traditional tonal and melodic congregational songs that have established themselves as part of Christmastide carol services. ‘Adeste fideles’, ‘The First Nowell’ and ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’ make frequent appearances in this guide (which admittedly includes a work by Langford which isn’t strictly orchestral). There’s a good reason for that.

Listen to all of these recordings in our Apple Music playlist.:

Fry Santa Claus: Christmas Symphony

Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Tony Rowe

(Naxos)

William Henry Fry (1813-64) was the first native-born American composer to write for large symphonic forces. He claimed his symphony of 1853 was ‘the longest instrumental composition ever written on a single subject, with unbroken continuity’, and it is said to be the first work ever to use the saxophone. It lasts just over 26 minutes and follows the story of Christ’s birth, a family’s Christmas Eve gathering, a snowstorm and Santa Claus’s arrival, ending with a hymn of praise in the form of ‘Adeste fideles’ – an orchestral celebration like no other of the sentimental, Dickens-inspired Christmases of the 19th century.

 

Anderson A Christmas Festival

Boston Pops / Arthur Fiedler

(RCA Gold Seal)

This overture of popular Christmas carols by America’s pre-eminent light music composer was commissioned by Arthur Fiedler for the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1950. Leroy Anderson wrote two different versions, the original and an abbreviated one made in 1952, both beginning with ‘Joy to the World’ and ending with ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘O come, all ye faithful’. The 1959 recording, which also includes Anderson’s evergreen Sleigh Ride, still sounds amazingly fresh.

 

Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony

Pro Arte Orchestra / Barry Rose

(EMI/Warner Classics)

This is a traditional four-movement symphony and the first substantial orchestral work to use mainly traditional carols (as opposed to 19th-century Christmas hymns) for its thematic material. South African-born Victor Hely-Hutchinson, who would become the BBC’s Director of Music in 1944, wrote it in 1927: ‘Adeste fideles’ (first movement), ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’ (Scherzo), ‘The Coventry Carol’ and ‘The First Nowell’ (slow movement), ‘Here we come a-wassailing’ and, again, ‘Adeste fideles’ (finale).

 

Kelly Improvisations on Christmas Carols

City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland

(Naxos)

Bryan Kelly (b 1934), a student of Herbert Howells, Gordon Jacob and Nadia Boulanger, is best known for his choral music. In this set of pieces (composed 1969) he dispenses with words and has resourceful and mischievous contrapuntal fun with six favourite carols. The five short movements (none longer than three minutes) make up what is really an orchestral suite – and the first item on a terrific disc of carol-based orchestral works.

 

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols

Soloists, Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral, LSO / Richard Hickox

(EMI/Warner Classics)

This single-movement work, from around the same time as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Five Mystical Songs, lasts a modest 12'. No mere succession of melodies (they include ‘The truth sent from above’, ‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’, ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing’, ‘There is a fountain’), this, with its magical orchestration and vocal colouring, has been a perennial favourite with choral societies since its premiere at the Three Choirs Festival (Hereford) 1912.

 

Langford A Christmas Fantasy

Huddersfield Choral Society, John Foster Black Dyke Mills Band / Roy Newsome

(Chandos)

An unashamedly populist medley of Christmas favourites seamlessly linked by Gordon Langford’s expert arrangement, and in a sumptuous recording in which singers, brass and organ combine to lift the roof off Huddersfield Town Hall. The party ends with the brass playing ‘Deck the halls’ and ‘Ding dong! Merrily on high’ against the choir’s ‘The First Nowell’, the final item on a disc that’s guaranteed to raise the meanest Scrooge’s spirits.

 

Standford A Christmas Carol Symphony

City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland

(Naxos)

Patric Standford died in April aged 75. His A Christmas Carol Symphony was first performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra on Christmas Eve 1979. Its four movements use no less than 12 carols ranging from ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ to ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’. Philip Lane’s booklet-notes reveal that the work ‘grew out of a pot-pourri of seasonal tunes played to entertain [Standford’s] children in the framework of an eighteenth century symphony’.

 

Britten Men of Goodwill

Minnesota Orchestra / Sir Neville Marriner

(EMI/Warner Classics)

Though hardly one of Britten’s finest works, this short (8'34"), inventive set of variations on ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’ doesn’t deserve its present obscurity. It was the last incidental music he wrote for the BBC, originally heard on the wireless immediately preceding King George VI’s 1947 Christmas Day message, and not published until 1982. The fugal finale (omitted from the broadcast) is a subdued cousin of that in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

 

Coleridge-Taylor, arr Baynes Christmas Overture

BBC Concert Orchestra / Barry Wordsworth

(Naxos)

This charming – if slight – overture has its origins in the music (commissioned by Herbert Beerbohm Tree) for a ‘poetical fairy drama’ by Alfred Noyes which was never produced. Although Coleridge-Taylor recycled some of the music in other works, he never used this section, which was arranged by Sydney Baynes (famous for his Destiny waltz). ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ are the overture’s main ports of call.

 

Arnold, orch Palmer Fantasy on Christmas Carols

BBC Philharmonic / Rumon Gamba

(Chandos)

Christopher Palmer’s 1991 score for this flamboyant showpiece tells us that the music is derived from three Malcolm Arnold works: the 1952 film The Holly and the Ivy (featuring the eponymous carol and ‘The First Nowell’); a TV documentary called Christmas Round-Up (‘I saw three ships’); and carol arrangements ‘contributed to the Save the Children Fund 1960’ (‘The First Nowell’ again, and ‘Away in a manger’). This is a superb Chandos recording.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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