Every year, Händel’s Messiah seems to claim the center stage of Christmas performances. Yet, there are other classic works no less sparkling that repay listening during this season.  Timelessly beautiful, their joy and buoyancy are sure to lift the spirit.

Music of the Renaissance

Christmas music of the Renaissance is sufficiently removed from contemporary sounds that it refreshes the ear and the whole person with its sobriety and restraint.  Any of the following CDs make for a satisfying listening experience: music of the Tallis Singers, the King’s Singers, “A Renaissance Christmas,” by New York’s Ensemble for Early Music.  The quality of these voices is delightful for the absence of affectation. 

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

Claudio Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 and was recorded in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.  Its conductor and narrator of this presentation was John Eliot Gardiner, the renowned English music historian and conductor.  This DVD, advertised in the Italian as Vespro della Beata Virgine, is sumptuous for many reasons:  the Vespers are performed live in St. Mark’s, a space with natural quadraphonic acoustics; four full choirs are used with period or original instruments; Gardiner narrates the story behind the story of how the Vespers came to be performed in Venice; and finally, Gardiner provides a travelogue of Venice from one island to another.  The DVD has a festive quality to it and one which heightens the joy of the Christmas season.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is available on CD and DVD.  This large-scale composition carries with it the joy expected of Bach’s genius, but listening to it may require a patient ear:  The text is in German; the work spans an entire period of the church year.  No matter.  The buoyant music guides the feelings of the listener.

The Bach B Minor Mass

It is said that without Martin Luther, there would be no Johann Sebastian Bach.  Bach was born into a devout Lutheran family and lived as a devout Lutheran his entire life.  Still, the Mass expresses Bach’s interior grasp of the Catholic texts and an intense external fervor.  His talents emerge from a full treasury of emotion, and with equal mastery, he composes joy, sorrow, intimacy, and grandeur.

The Mass, composed for the Catholic Augustus III of Saxony, was completed in 1749, the year before Bach’s death. Taking almost two hours to perform, it is a tour de force of Catholic devotion vis-à-vis the Ordinary parts of the Latin Mass.  The preferred performance has been recorded in a spectacular setting, in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. Among the largest, well-known, and most beautiful churches in all of Europe, it is the home of French kings and many historic events. Notre Dame, with its sharp acoustics, houses perhaps the most magnificent organ in Europe not to mention its breathtaking rose windows, stained glass, and famous bells.  Its liturgical interior is the perfect setting for this overpowering composition.  It is fitting then that in this famous cathedral, the DVD of Bach’s B Minor Mass is performed.

The B minor Mass is uniquely Bach’s with Baroque trumpets and timpani serving as two massive book ends to the orchestral sound.  Then there is the famous Bach musical symbolism:  strings descending over the words that describe the Holy Spirit’s descent over Mary as she accepts her vocation of Divine Motherhood in the Incarnation and the dying out of music at the text passus et sepultus est to express the death and burial of Christ.

Bach’s Magnificat

Bach’s composition of Mary’s Magnificat is also a tour de force.  He expresses an interior grasp of the Catholic texts with an intense external fervor. The text tells what the mystery means with the music telling the listener how to feel while listening to the Latin words.

Prior to his conversion, the French writer Paul Claudel (d 1955) had neither the desire nor knowledge of the extraordinary graces awaiting him through to the beauty of the Church’s sacred arts. Claudel was moved to conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. 

Claudel describes that moment of conversion: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it” (Paul Claudel, “Ma conversion” in Contacts et circonstances, Gallimard, 1940, p. 11ss; cf. also in Ecclesia, Lectures chrétiennes, Paris, No 1, avril 1949, p. 53-58, quoted as note 34 in “The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue” (2006).

Sacred music is a sensory way of experiencing the great mysteries of Catholic faith.  And music is the only art form that touches the human heart more deeply than the others.  At this time when Christendom celebrates the mystery of God becoming human, is it any wonder that festive music bursts forth with splendor, intensity and grandeur?