And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”—Luke 2: 13-14 (ESV)
One of the best parts of the Christmas season is the music. Because so many carols, hymns, and songs have been written about Christ’s birth, it’s almost impossible to enjoy them all before Christmas is over. My family has a vast collection of Christmas albums, and every year directly after Thanksgiving we get them out and start listening to them. All of the CDs are different, and all have their special places in our hearts, for the amazing thing about Christmas songs is that they can be of all styles and moods, and yet all tell the same wonderful story.
If you are in the mood for choral music, John Rutter and Robert Shaw have recorded many Christmas albums. One of Rutter’s best recordings is Christmas Star, which features the Cambridge Singers and Orchestra performing much loved hymns like “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” and “Joy To the World,” as well as lesser known songs like “’Twas in the Moon of Winter Time,” and “O Little One Sweet.” Robert Shaw’s A Festival of Carols has many of the same songs as Christmas Star, but the arrangements and overall sound are completely different, oftentimes more dramatic. A Festival of Carols features a number of medleys, allowing the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra to squeeze as many carols onto the album as possible.
For a simpler but equally beautiful compilation of Christmas songs, listen to Angels’ Glory, a collaboration between soprano Kathleen Battle and guitarist Christopher Parkening. The album features many different pieces, ranging from spirituals to Spanish and French carols to lullabies to traditional hymns. Kathleen Battle also performs on A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert, a live performance given in 1991 by soprano Frederica von Stade, trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, conductor Andre Previn, two choirs, a jazz septet, and an orchestra. The album features numbers like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Evening Prayer,” “Maria Weigenleid,” “Winter Wonderland,” and medleys of Christmas spirituals and traditional carols.
Josh Groban’s Noël features much of the typical Christmas fare— “Ave Maria,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The Christmas Song,” “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”—but the soaring, luscious arrangements featuring the piano, orchestra, guitar, and choirs, along with Groban’s voice, make these well-known pieces fresh and new. Even “Silent Night,” a piece every recording artist performs at some point, stands apart on this album due to its exquisite arrangement.
But even fresh arrangements of standard Christmas songs can’t get you all the way through the month of December. Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson is an album of twelve songs, and only three of them are traditional carols; all the rest are original compositions by Peterson. That’s not what sets this album apart, however. From the opening song to the closing, Peterson tells the wonderful story of how God redeemed his people by sending his Son to be born of a woman. Through songs like “Passover Us,” and “Deliver Us,” Peterson shows how Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a picture of how God frees his people from sin; in “So Long, Moses,” Peterson reminds listeners that God raised up many leaders for his people, but none could compare with the Christ; “Matthew’s Begats” is a fun way to learn Jesus’ genealogy; “Labor of Love” is a tender song showing how the night of Jesus’ birth was not as idyllic as we would like to think; “Behold the Lamb of God” declares the glorious hope sinners have in the Messiah.
The lyrics for the songs on Behold the Lamb of God make the album very powerful, but sometimes we need more relaxing, contemplative music. That’s where Carol McClure’s A Harp Noel and Susan Beisner’s Silent Word come into the picture. McClure’s arrangements of classic Christmas hymns are beautifully soothing, and she uses the harp’s wide range of sounds and techniques to full advantage. Susan Beisner performs eleven complex piano arrangements of hymns on Silent Word, beautifully interpreting pieces like “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and creating medleys of well-known carols such as “Away in a Manger” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
There are many Christmas albums out there, but I find that every time December rolls around these are the ones I listen to the most often. Some of them are rather nostalgic, for I have listened to them all my life; others are new favorites due to their originality and beauty. But these eight albums are so much more than just pretty music. They tell a wonderful, deep story that makes the bleakest winter day a day to rejoice.
♪Battle, Kathleen and Christopher Parkening. Angels’ Glory. Sony Classics, 1996.
♪Beisner, Susan. Silent Word. Parnassum Music, 2006.
♪Groban, Josh. Noël. Reprise Records, 2007.
♪McClure, Carol. A Harp Noel. Coventry Music, 2001.
♪Peterson, Andrew. Behold the Lamb of God. Word Entertainment, 2004.
♪Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra. A Festival of Carols. RCA Gold Label, 1987.
♪Rutter, John and the Cambridge Singers. Christmas Star. Collegium Records, 1997.
♪Von Stade, Frederica, Kathleen Battle, and Wynton Marsalis. A Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert. Sony Classical, 1992.