10 Underrated Pieces of Classical Music for Christmas

Everyone has an opinion about music at Christmas time. Some would prefer the older standards while others insist that the new Christmas album put out by so-and-so artist is the best thing since Christmas itself. But when it comes to Classical Music at Christmas time, there seems to be a tacit universal understanding by society that Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and Handel’s Messiah, are what we should listen to. Walking through a mall and watching holiday commercials, your ear is bound to run into these two pieces.  Now, this is not meant as disapproval of these  pieces. I happen to enjoy them very much and make it a point to listen to both each Christmas season; yet, there are so many other works which remain in the shadows, drowned out by the the likes of the Hallelujah Chorus and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. It is because of this that I would like to feature the 10 most underrated pieces of Classical Music for Christmas.  

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah.

I am including this for the simple fact that most of us only ever hear the Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas, yet Messiah is over three hours long, and there is more for the listener than meets the ear. Everyone plays Messiah at Christmas, yet its original premier was near Easter, why is this? The first part of the oratorio has to do with with the birth of Christ, with the subsequent parts being about his life, death, resurrection, and the end of days. The fabled Hallelujah Chorus actually is the finale of Part II and is meant to represent Christ’s resurrection, not his birth. For that, Handel gives us For Unto Us A Child is Born.

2. The Pine Forest in Winter from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

While we are all accustomed to hearing the character dances from The Nutcracker, there are hidden gems throughout the score which are just as magical and deserve to be placed in the popular canon alongside the Russian Trepak and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. This movement in particular is at the point in the ballet where the real and fantasy worlds meet, and Clara is transported to a snow covered forest by her prince to be led to the magical kingdom. Because of this, it is incredibly vivid how much it mirrors our world when the snow covers the trees every December.

3. “Christmas” Concerto Op. 6 No. 8 by Arcangelo Corelli

Listening to this piece, many would say, “what is Christmas-y about this?” The predominant tone of the piece is dark and brooding with only the 3rd and 6th movements showing any indication of light. The Christmas spirit in this piece comes from the final movement which is a “Pastorale,” a shepherd's song, evoking the shepherds present for Christ’s birth. This contrast also represents the light of Christ entering the world.

4. “Christmas Day” by Gustav Holst

In this piece Holst combines traditional English Christmas tunes into a breathtaking medley which points back to the real reason for Christmas: Christ. For the man who gave us The Planets, his reprieve of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” is just as sweeping and lyrical as any found in that set. 

5. Sacrum Mysterium by Apollo’s Fire

Premiered in 2012 by Apollo’s Fire (aka The Cleveland Baroque Orchestra) this concert was designed to showcase the Christmas music of medieval Ireland. The sounds of chanting and Gaelic instruments, while initially jaring the ear, provide the listener with the ability to transport back to the 13th century to hear what Christmas sounded like.

6. A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Written in 1942, Britten composed these carols with middle english texts from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. Initially meant to be a collection of songs, the composition of the processional and recessional, “Hodie Christus Natus Est,” helped unify and center the piece around Christmas. It shares many of the characteristics as Sacrum Mysterium, namely its focus on chant and ancient modal harmonies.

7. “Toy Symphony” by Leopold Mozart

Initially attributed to Franz Joseph Haydn, but has now been credited to Mozart’s father, this short excerpt of a longer symphony shows the charming sense of theater which Mozart the elder was able to pass on to his son. Composers of his time had many responsibilities, namely creating music for certain occasions for their employers. In this case, Leopold had the ingenious idea to incorporate sounds of rattles, a toy trumpet, a bird whistle, etc., for a Christmas celebration. This piece should remind us all of the charm and wonder of children opening the presents on Christmas Day. If you would like more of Leopold Mozart’s Christmas music, I recently found this short Divertimento in F depicting a sleigh ride. Likewise, Mozart the younger also had a short German Dance depicting a sleigh ride as well.

8. “Troika” from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite

Originally, the music Prokofiev wrote for Lieutenant Kije had nothing to do with Christmas, but instead concerned itself with an early Soviet biopic of the same name. It was only later that Prokofiev chose to adapt the music into an orchestral suite which included this delightful movement depicting a trokia (a Russian three-horse sled). The movement is full of sleigh bells, colorful pizzicato from the strings, and a joyous melody that takes one on a vivid sleigh ride through the countryside. In terms of Christmas music depicting sleigh rides, it’s only comparison is that of Leroy Anderson’s.

9. The Typewriter by Leroy Anderson

Speaking of Leroy Anderson, this less known work by him has been described as one of “the wittiest and most clever pieces in the orchestral repertoire.” While this piece is not in-and-of-itself a Christmas piece, I have seen it billed on a couple of Christmas concerts, with the conductor taking the role of the typist, writing a desperate letter to Santa in hopes of getting what he wants for Christmas.

10. A Christmas Festival by Leroy Anderson

Seeing that Leroy Anderson has composed one of the most iconic Christmas pieces ever, it is only fitting to showcase his wonderful Christmas medley. This Christmas medley stands out for its incredible economy of sound; being able to squeeze nine popular Christmas tunes into the space of eight and a half minutes. Anderson also manages to maintain the sense of a larger structure while not jolting the listener from one melody to the next but rather guiding the ear along through the Christmas season. As with all of Anderson’s works, the orchestration is superb, on par in fact with some of the greatest orchestrators ever.