A Guide to Christmas Music

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The festive feeling is in full swing at Cheltenham Festivals HQ. We’ve asked Cheltenham Music Festival Manager Camilla King to give us a rundown of her favourite Christmas classics and choral music. She’s explained her choices below.

Creating a playlist of classical Christmas tunes, and mining my musical friends for their favourite yuletide tracks has been an eye-opening experience. My own taste is firmly rooted in an Anglican upbringing. Enduring Christmas memories are those of old darkened churches, the silence pierced by shuffling feet, gentle coughs and song floating over cold stone, ears straining to catch the choir as they approach, candles guttering. A time of holly prickles, sticky Christingle oranges, incense, mystery and anticipation.

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I’ve never ventured far beyond this Western European choral tradition; it’s my musical comfort food and I just don’t feel adventurous at this time of year. At Christmas I have a weakness for anything melodic, harmonious and not too challenging (John Rutter? Oh go on then). I find myself overwhelmed by lights, tinsel, noise and consumerism (not that I abstain from any of it, naturally), but I’ve really enjoyed expanding my horizons to take in more wintery orchestral music, Scandinavian works, Weihnachtsmusik (I still can’t work out how to describe this, but it’s worth listening to if you take your music on the strange side), Ru Paul, Gospel and much more.

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The playlist I’ve put together, however, is strictly in the choral vein; a journey of my favourite works which lead the way from music for the meditative Advent period, through the joy of Christmastide, and on into Epiphany, its sparse settings hopefully a welcome palette cleanser.

Much as I love traditional music, I also can’t resist a heavy dose of cheese with my mulled wine, so I’ve made an extra playlist of popular numbers – plenty of classic jazz crooners in deference to Festivals Director Ian George, and many other songs that I hope will have you dancing through to New Year.

Here are some of my favourite Christmas choral recordings, should you wish to delve deeper or need some last minute stocking fillers:

Advent Live by the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge

Veni Emmanuel by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

Incarnation by Gabrieli

Song of the Nativity by The Sixteen

100 Years Nine Lessons & Carols by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Gospel Christmas by the Northwest Community Gospel Chorus

I also can’t pass on giving special mentions for the Christmas recordings by Tenebrae, the album ‘Folkjul II: A Swedish Folk Christmas’ and Voces8 ‘Winter’; a truly chilly affair. If you’re keen to explore festive orchestral music, harpsichordist extraordinaire, Mahan Esfahani, has written a brilliant post for Hyperion – he says it all far more eloquently than I am able to!