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1) Palestrina ,"Alma Redemptoris Mater” (Monteverdi Choir)

Loving Mother of our Savior, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see

Growing up Lutheran, I didn’t know any Marian motets or hymns until well into college.  I first sang this motet a couple of years ago, and I was struck with the simplistic beauty and perfection of the polyphony.  Palestrina was the Italian master of this genre of motets, and this is an excellent example of why his music has withstood centuries.  

2) JS Bach, Magnificat, BWV 243a: "Magnificat anima mea” (The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner)

My soul doth magnify the Lord.  

Bach’s Magnificat gets a lot of performance time outside of the Christmas season, but I think it’s one of the truly great works of Bach.  I compare this opening movement with the opening movement of his “Gloria” from the B minor mass…so much ebullience and joy!  There is so much going on musically that it takes several hearings to digest only the slightest bit.  To me, this music gives the picture of a Mary rejoicing, perhaps dancing in her joy, as opposed to the pious Virgin kneeling in prayer.  

3) Handel, Messiah HWV 56: “For unto us a child is born” (Kammerchor Stuttgart, Barockorchester Stuttgart, Frieden Bernius)

For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given
And the government shall be upon His shoulders,
And His name shall be called wonderful counselor,
The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

This is quintessential Christmas to me.  I don’t care if Messiah was composed for Easter, this movement is the heart of the Christmas story.  This movement also happens to be the first piece of “serious” music I sang as a freshman in high school.  I do believe this is the very piece of music that got me hooked on classical music.  Like the Bach Magnificat, this movement has those same outbursts of joy, and Handel bangs the listener over the head with how important this baby is!

4) Vivaldi, Gloria RV 589: “Domine fili unigenite” (Taverner Choir, Taverner Players, Andrew Parrott)

The only-begotten son of God, Jesus Christ.

Although not technically a Christmas song at all, the Vivaldi Gloria also gets a fair amount of play time during the holidays.  Although I love the entire work, this movement is my favorite, for all of the same reasons as the Bach and the Handel.  The dotted rhythms played and sung throughout can’t help but make you want to tap your foot.  I have also always been attracted to this particular recording, because the performers are all women, which may have been the original makeup of the premier performance.  Having the tenor line sung in the soprano octave gives the music some descants that are absent from mixed choir performances.  

5) Franz Tunder, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Susanne Rüden, Bell’Arte Salzburg)

Awake! Calls the voice to us
Of the watchmen high up in the tower;
Awake! You city of Jerusalem.
Midnight the hour is named;
They call to us with bright voices;
Where are you, wise virgins?
Indeed, the Bridegroom comes;
Rise up and take your lamps,
Make yourselves ready
For the wedding,
You must go to meet Him.

Zion hears the watchmen sing,
Her heart leaps for joy within her,
She wakes and hastily arises.
Her glorious Friend comes from heaven,
Strong in mercy, powerful in truth,
Her light becomes bright, her star rises.
Now come, precious crown,
Lord Jesus, the Son of God!
We all follow
To the hall of joy
And hold the evening meal together.

Three of my favorite things: Franz Tunder, a viol consort, and the “Wachet auf!” chorale, all in the same motet!  I came across this motet a few years ago when I was singing a different Tunder motet, and I instantly fell in love with it.  I have always loved the “Wachet auf!” chorale, but I never got into Bach’s more famous cantata (so sue me!).  This setting makes me so happy—I would gladly wake up to this ensemble! 

6) "Quelle est cette odeur agreable” (Chanticleer)

Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?
adorns the air, and nothing like it
the shepherds sensed in fields in May?
Where is that goodly fragrance flowing
to steal the senses all away?

A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.
The light of Christ, it is so radiant,
the beam it casts to be our way.
A light so bright, a beam so piercing
it turns our darkness into day.

Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.
Adore your God and your redeemer;
Saviour of all to win the day
Shepherds to Bethlehem, go hasten!
And in a manger see him lay.

All pow'rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord.
Grace, peace anf truth give to all nations
Spring forth from Jesus Christ our Lord.
All pow’rful God, and King eternal,
The heavens praise with one accord.

(Translation by Rod Mather)

I sang this carol in college, and when we were initially learning it, I didn’t “get it.”  It wasn’t until I heard this Chanticleer recording that I finally understood this carol, and then fell in love with it.  The lush, close harmonies, the soaring melody, and that solo—stick a fork in me, I’m done! 

7) Benjamin Britten, “A Hymn to the Virgin” (Road to Paradise, Gabrieli, Paul McCreesh)

Of one who is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,   [Like a star of the sea]
Brighter than the day is light, 
Parens et puella:   [Both mother and maiden]
I cry to thee, thou see to me,
Lady, pray thy Son for me, 
Tam pia,   [so pure]
That I may come to thee. 
Maria!   [Mary]
All this world was forlorn,
Eva peccatrice,   [because of Eve, a sinner]
Till our Lord was yborn,
De te genetrice.   [through you, his mother]
With ave it went away,
Darkest night, and comes the day
Salutis;   [of salvation]
The well springeth out of thee. 
Virtutis.   [of virtue]

Lady, flower of everything,
Rosa sine spina,   [Rose without thorn]
Thou bare Jesu, heaven's king, 
Gratia divina:   [by divine grace]
Of all thou bearest the prize,
Lady, queen of paradise
Electa:   [chosen]
Maid mild, mother
es effecta.   [you are made]

Yeah, this one might actually be my all-time favorite Christmas song.  I first heard it when I was in college; one of the other auditioned choirs sang it a Christmas concert, and I was completely blown away.  This is Britten at his finest; nothing extraneous, every word precisely set, and the eerie harmonies wafting through the air—and it’s one of the earliest pieces of music he wrote!!!  I didn’t actually sing it myself until many years later, but I will always remember sitting in that church on University Ave in Madison, WI wondering how perfect a piece of music could be.  

8) Bach, “O Jesulein süß, O Jesulein mild” (Chanticleer)

O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus,
the Father’s will you have fulfilled;
you have come from the heavenly kingdom,
you have become like us poor mortals,
O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus.

O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus,
you have satisfied your father's wrath.
You pay us all our debt
and bring us your father's favor,
O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus.

O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus,
you are the image of love:
ignite in us the flame of love,
that we all of one accord love you,
O sweet little Jesus, O mild little Jesus.

This is a hymn that I have known for a long time, but that I have only had the fortune of singing once during my career.  Of the few Chanticleer CDs I had, I listened to “Sing We Christmas” a lot, and this beautiful hymn is on that album.  I would listen to this song on repeat because I loved the way it sounded so, so much. I don't even really have words for this hymn, other than that I think of it as the most beautiful and perfect manger-side lullaby...sheer beauty!

9) John Goss, “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow” 

See, amid the winter's snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.

Hail, thou ever blessed morn,
Hail redemption's happy dawn,
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits among the cherubim.


Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was Thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.


Teach, O teach us, Holy Child,
By Thy face so meek and mild,
Teach us to resemble Thee,
In Thy sweet humility.


This is probably the most recent installment on my list of Christmas favorites.  I didn’t sing this hymn until just a few years ago, on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Advent in Boston, and all I could think was, “how have I NEVER sung or heard this before?!”  This is not a manger-side lullaby or a meditation on the solitude of the nativity—this is all out singing for joy that it’s Christmas Day!

10) Adolphe Adam, “O Holy Night” (Leontyne Price, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan)

O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth,
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices!
O night divine!  O night when Christ was born!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all opression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful voices raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is our Lord,  Then ever, ever praise we!
O night divine!  O night when Christ was born! 

"O Holy Night" has for a long time been my absolute favorite Christmas tune. I remember singing it as a kid in my Sunday school Christmas program, I sang it on my senior recital at UW-Madison, and I've kept it close to me ever since. Here is my favorite rendition of this beautiful Christmas song. I wish I had been alive during Leontyne Price's prime...have we heard a voice like this since her? I can't answer that, but what I can say is that no one sings "O holy night" like she does! From the moment she begins singing, it feels like being drenched in the warmest, gooiest dark chocolate... I’ve listened to this recording hundreds of times, and it brings tears to my eyes EVERY time! 

11) Darlene Love, "Winter Wonderland" (on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector)

I love this song...every time I hear it in the car (which is where the bulk of my holiday listening enjoyment takes place), I crank the radio as loud as it can handle, and I rock out with Darlene Love.  I love those tight harmonies that only a girl group from the 1960s can give can't help but sing along!  I think this song also gets a lot of play time in holiday movies, and it brings back a lot of great memories of family Christmases, watching movies like “Christmas Vacation” or “Elf.”   It's a groovy song, and I hope it gives you as much Christmas cheer as it gives to me! 

12) L. Anderson, "Sleigh Ride" (Instrumental) (on I’ll be Home for Christmas)

This is my favorite instrumental Christmas tune! This song reminds me of shopping malls and crowds and tacky garland and Christmas lights EVERYWHERE!  I could listen to this for HOURS—I'm pretty sure I already have!  I never grow tired of listening to this! I love the key changes, the swung rhythms, my just keeps on getting better and better!!!  I'm sorry, do you hear horses?....oh no? that's just the woodblock? And sleigh bells!  GENIUS!!  Puts me in the holiday spirit time and time again!!! :)


[Editor's Note: With a post this thorough, is it obvious to anyone else that Gerrod is our Assistant Music Director?]