Alternative Classical Christmas Music Recommendations If traditional Christmas songs are burning a hole in your brain, we'll help expand your repertoire with alternative classical Christmas music served up by author and critic Colin Fleming.
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Alternative Classical Christmas Music Recommendations

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Alternative Classical Christmas Music Recommendations

Alternative Classical Christmas Music Recommendations

Alternative Classical Christmas Music Recommendations

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If traditional Christmas songs are burning a hole in your brain, we'll help expand your repertoire with alternative classical Christmas music served up by author and critic Colin Fleming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JINGLE BELL ROCK")

BOBBY HELMS: (Singing) Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock. Jingle bell...

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's Christmas Eve morning. By this time, you've probably heard "Jingle Bell Rock" maybe 80 times, 180 times. Now, we know that a lot of really good Christmas music is classical, but even there we've heard the "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy" from "The Nutcracker Suite" quite a few times. And then there's the "Hallelujah Chorus" from the "Messiah." But what about some classical music for Christmas that is every bit as good, but has not been running through your brain quite so much. Author and critic Colin Fleming is here to acquaint us with some pieces. Hello, Colin.

COLIN FLEMING: How's it going, Linda?

WERTHEIMER: Pretty well. So let me ask you what stands out in your own Christmas listening habit that is off the beaten classical path.

FLEMING: I think tradition can almost become so averred that it sometimes keeps us away from exploring other paths, like the one someone like Arnold Schoenberg would have gone down. He was a Jewish modernist, so you wouldn't really expect a lot of Christmas flair from his own compositions. But in 1921, he wrote Christmas music, which is really a beautiful Christmas piece with a variation on "Silent Night" tucked into the strings and a sort of change bell ringing in the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEIHNACHTSMUSIK")

FLEMING: Now, Schoenberg wasn't the only modernist who got in on the Christmas act. There was Charles Ives, who was a New England lad like myself, so I'm partial. But in 1894, he wrote that other "A Christmas Carol," which is a very beautiful piece that has this heraldic quality to it, sort of like a compound of starshine and bated breath, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Little child of Bethlehem, do we hear thee in our hearts? Hear the angels singing - peace on Earth.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Colin, this very beautiful. And I know it's English because Charles Ives wrote it, but I can't understand her. What is she - what is this carol?

FLEMING: It's basically an angel proclaiming that the king of kings has arrived. So you are right there on site as that historic, of course, moment transpires.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Over the cradle of a king, hear the angels sing - in excelsis gloria.

WERTHEIMER: What about other composers who are very famous, but not known for Christmas music? I mean, give us a name that's familiar to everyone and maybe makes some of the people listening say, I didn't know about that.

FLEMING: I'd say that Franz Liszt would work pretty well as a composer like that. He was a veritable Paganini of the keyboard, meaning that a lot of people thought he was long on technique, short on soul. But in the mid-1870s, he wrote a piano-based piece for his granddaughter. And you'll note how much inherent movement there is in this, like a child moving from one present to another, unsure on which one to open first. But to me, it's a Christmas gift really born of art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEIHNACHTSBAUM")

FLEMING: Then we have Beethoven, who, in his penultimate piano sonata - it took him a very long time to complete it - for him. He was dogged by jaundice, and he actually completed it on Christmas morning 1821. And he wrote a little carol figure into the final piece to mark the occasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA NO. 31 IN A FLAT MAJOR, OPP. 110")

WERTHEIMER: Beethoven, the Christmas fan - who knew? (Laughter) But I wonder - I know you've been building up to something here.

FLEMING: (Laughter).

WERTHEIMER: Something wonderful - what is it?

FLEMING: Yes. Well, we all know Handel's "Messiah," and a lot of people leave, unfortunately, after the "Hallelujah Chorus." And they miss out on what, to me, is the best part. That's the concluding "Amen Chorus," which has this Bachean fugue-like quality. There is a melody in the violins that could still the earth before the choir breaks in, and I think, to me, this is the sound of the human spirit and what can be endured and what can be gained if you leave your heart open. And that more than anything is what I consider the sound of Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSIAH, HWV 56: PART III - CHORUS, AMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen, amen.

WERTHEIMER: There you have it - some classical Christmas music to see you through today and tomorrow. That was author and critic Colin Fleming. Colin, happy holidays.

FLEMING: Hey, happy holidays to you, too, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSIAH, HWV 56: PART III - CHORUS, AMEN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Amen, amen.

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