My 10 favorite lesser-known Christmas pieces

I have been enjoying my Christmas records for the past couple of weeks. I have also seen plenty of online articles and blogposts with titles like, “The Ten Best Christmas Pieces of All Times,” or more modestly, “My Ten Favorite Christmas Songs.” A lot of them list the music we hear in church, concerts, on the radio, and in stores and shopping malls year after year.

I thought I’d do something a little different and list some of my favorite pieces that are less well known. Most are older than the what we usually hear many times over the course of the season. Readers of this blog have probably heard at least some of these pieces, just not as often as the popular favorites.

10. Hacia Belén / Spanish composer (unknown time)

Probably until the invention and commercialization of Santa Claus, even secular carols focused on Jesus and his birth. In this silly little villancico, some gypsies, a man in a sombrero, and a donkey laden with chocolate arrive at the stable in Bethlehem. The refrain calls to Mary to hurry up, but she doesn’t. The gypsies steal the swaddling clothes, somehow the chocolate disappears, and the donkey eats the sombrero.

9. Riu, riu chiu / anonymous Spanish villancico (published in 1556)

The nobility of Vallencia prided themselves on the subtlety of their erudition and ability of their conversation and their poetry. The text of this piece explains the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, portraying the devil as a wolf, Mary as a precious ewe, and God the Father as a shepherd who builds an impregnable wall around her. I especially enjoy this piece for the exuberant rhythm of its refrain.

8. Allon, gay, gay bergères / Guillaume Costeley (late 16th century)

Another secular piece. Here the shepherds go to Bethlehem to visit the new-born king and, among other things, comment on how well he drinks from his mother’s breast. This chanson exhibits Costeley’s skill in counterpoint. It’s very fun to sing.

7. Quem pastores laudavere / German (late 16th century)

When Luther broke from the Roman church, he did not abandon the use of Latin or the liturgical structure of worship services. This piece, used for Christmas night services, has been so popular in Germany that “Quempas” became slang for the more proper “Weihnachtslied” (Christmas carol). I suppose if Christmas in Germany is as commercialized as it has become in the US, German shoppers probably get their fill of this tune every year. It’s a beautiful change of pace here.

6. A virgin unspotted / William Billings (late 18th century)

Throughout the eighteenth century, a number of composers whose names are now known only to musicologists composed unsophisticated music for use in rural English churches. Since English styles were the source of nearly all American music, it is no surprise that William Billings and other largely self-taught American composers used fuging tunes and other rural English practices as their model. “A virgin unspotted” does not include a fuging tune, but it does have a jig-like refrain and a vigor typical of his other works.

5. Quelle est cette odeur agréable? / French (17th century)

An anonymous seventeenth-century cleric, likely from  Lorraine, wrote a fairly sophisticated dialog between the shepherds and the angel that announced Jesus’ birth to them. It was fitted to a tune already well known in both France and England, where, with other words and doubtless a different singing style, appeared in comic operas and as a drinking song. As a Christmas song, it exudes a beautifully serene mood.

4. Still, still, still / Austrian (18th century?)

Neither of my recordings of this piece have liner notes. Searching the Web does not turn up much either, except that it was published in a collection called “Salzburger Volkslieder” (Folksongs from Salzburg) in 1819. Who knows how much older  it actually is? it. It is another very simple, very serene piece asking for stillness so the Christ child can sleep and commenting on the depth of love God exhibited in leaving his throne to become this child.

3. Gesu bambino / Pietro Yon (1917)

The Italian-born Yon moved to New York in 1907 to serve as organist and choirmaster of the church of St. Francis Xavier. He remained in New York for the rest of his life, eventually taking a similar position at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Gesu bambino,” his most famous piece, has a flowing Italianate melody that borrows its refrain from the traditional “Adeste fidelis” (“O come let us adore him”).

2. O magnum mysterium / Tomas Luis de Victoria (1572)

I can justify inclusion of this often-recorded masterpiece on a list lesser-known pieces mostly because has not suffered the kind of overexposure as much of the standard Christmas music on other top ten lists. I cannot recall when I first heard it or remember a time before it was one of my favorite pieces.

1. In principio erat verbum / Josquin des Prez (early 16th century)

I had the opportunity to sing this with a Renaissance choir more than 30 years ago. It was as difficult to learn as anything I ever remember singing, but well worth it. I fell in love with the piece and began to look for a recording, to no avail. Apparently no one ever recorded it until maybe a couple of years ago. Someone called a 99¢ download to my attention, and last year I decided to look for it. This time, I even found the piece on a recent CD. It’s not a Christmas CD, but the text, from the first chapter of John’s gospel, is the text appointed for Christmas morning in every lectionary I ever heard of. Maybe now that this beautiful motet  has been recorded once, someone will put it on a Christmas CD. Meanwhile, printed music has been easily available for years. I strongly recommend it to any choir that does Renaissance music.

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