It is safe to say that there are certain choral works we hear around the holidays year after year after year. They are time-honored, audiences love them, and our adult choirs know them very well. But there are many other pieces that work well at Christmastime that deserve to be shared with our performers and audiences alike. Since so much of the December music we know and love is from the Baroque era (Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria, or the Bach Magnificat), I thought I would share two Baroque pieces that do not get nearly as much (or enough) attention.
The first is “In Nativitatem Domini” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, published as “Christmas Cantata” in the edition by Clarence Barber and Daniel Pinkham (whose own, much more famous “Christmas Cantata” features much of the same text as Charpentier’s). This short piece is a gem, featuring soloists, SATB choir, and parts for two flutes, two violins, and continuo. The choir enters halfway through the piece, first in a lively setting of the “Psallite” text and eventually slowing the piece to a close with “Quoniam venit salvare terram” (“for He cometh to save all on the earth”). The choral parts alternate between homorhythm and polyphony, and all are written very comfortably within appropriate vocal ranges. The bass solo at the beginning is very much a solo, but you could easily make the soprano, alto, and tenor solo parts—voiced together—a choral or chamber section. These parts are occasionally melismatic but are very straightforward and rarely extend beyond two beats at a time. Charpentier’s “In Nativitatem Domini” is published by E.C. Schirmer and is available—as are the instrumental parts—here.
Perhaps, however, you are looking for a more extended work for a special service or Christmas concert. While well-known, I think Vivaldi’s Magnificat (RV 610) is often overshadowed by his Gloria, and I find it much more accessible to the average choir. While there are many moments of complex Baroque-style dissonance and chromaticism (in the first and last movements in particular), they are balanced by a harmonic foundation that logically supports the choral parts. There are a handful of movements designed for soloists in between the choral ones, and there is even a unison choral movement (“Deposuit”). Perhaps the most rehearsal time will be spent on the final movement, the “Gloria Patri”, which begins in a similar fashion to the opening of the entire work and then moves into a short double fugue. Still, it is certainly within reach of a good SATB choir, from high school to adult. Excellent instrumentalists will be needed if using an orchestra (and you should if you can), but the payoff will be immediately apparent in this underperformed setting of the Song of Mary which begins the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. There are many great editions of this work available, both published and in the Public Domain.
Are there other pieces, Baroque and otherwise, that you feel are accessible and would like to see performed more often around the holidays? Please share in the comments, and, as always, feel free to e-mail me ideas for pieces you would like to see featured in “Music Within Reach” at .
Brandon Moss is a choir director, teacher, and composer/arranger living and working in Central Ohio. He teaches at Central Crossing High School, directs the Chalice Choir at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and serves in leadership roles with the Ohio Choral Directors Association and the Ohio Music Education Association. He is currently working on the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Conducting at The Ohio State University.