You know the Christmas classics – but do you know these classical Christmas classics? The tradition of performing special music to celebrate the holiday season dates back to over 1,000 years ago!
Click the song titles or use our Classy Christmas Spotify playlist to try these listening activities with your smartsypants(es):
BASED ON A MEDIEVAL CAROL
The history of singing carols dates back to the Medieval times! Carols were originally festive tunes sung outside of church. They tended to be more upbeat than the slower, more prayerful music sung during religious services.
Good King Wenceslas tells the story of Saint Wenceslas, a Czech king traveling to serve a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (the day after Christmas). Though the song was written in the 1800s, it uses the melody from an ancient Medieval carol called "Tempus adest floridum." This makes it one of the oldest carol tunes still sung today!
TRY THIS→ A round is when everyone sings the same melody, starting at different times. It's a singing tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages! Find a friend (or many!) to sing Good King Wenceslas with you as a round! Use this guide for extra help:
16th CENTURY ENGLISH CHRISTMAS CAROL
This old Christmas carol used to be performed during the Coventry Mystery Plays...in the summertime! This was a big event in Coventry, England. Medieval performers acted out stories from the New Testament. These performances could last several days! Coventry Carol tells the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, when King Herod ordered all the babies in Jerusalem to be killed.
To our ears, this carol sounds sad because it uses a minor mode. A mode is a type of scale, or pattern of notes. Music today usually uses minor sounds to create a sad emotion. In the Medieval times, however, people were used to hearing many different types of musical modes. They may have even thought this tune sounded happy!
TRY THIS → After Coventry was bombed during World War II, a choir stood in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and sang this carol over a BBC broadcast, forever giving the song an even sadder meaning. As you listen closely, make a list of what emotions the song makes you feel.
CANTATA BY J.S. BACH • 1743-46
A cantata is a type of musical piece that singers and instruments perform together. J.S. Bach wrote this cantata during the Baroque period, a time known for dramatic and complex music. You'll recognize Baroque music because it has many moving parts at one time, and musicians often "decorate" their parts with extra notes that twist and turn.
Bach almost always used German lyrics for his church music...but this song is in Latin! He took some music he had already written and re-used it to create this exciting, impressive Christmas piece.
TRY THIS → Baroque music is famously dramatic. It often switches between soft and loud dynamics. Watch the video performance of this cantata by the Netherlands Bach Society and try leading the music like the conductor does. When the music slows down or changes volume, make sure you express that with your arms, too!
BY WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART • 1791
Mozart wrote this playful music to sound like a sleigh bouncing along a snowy road. Mozart was a Classical composer, which means his music sounds balanced and even, like a perfect ancient Greek sculpture. You can often recognize Mozart's memorable, clear melodies.
One of Mozart's jobs was to compose dance music for balls held in Vienna's Imperial Palace. Sleigh Ride was one of these dance pieces, and it sounds like a waltz. This means you can count "1 - 2 - 3" along with the beat of the music.
TRY THIS → Since Sleigh Ride is written like a winter waltz, dance along to the music! You can even watch a video like this one to learn a basic waltz dance.
FROM AN ORATORIO BY HECTOR BERLIOZ • 1852
An oratorio is a large musical piece for singers and an orchestra. Oratorios usually tell religious stories. One oratorio you've probably heard at Christmas time is Handel's Messiah! This piece of music comes from an oratorio that was composed by the French musician Hector Berlioz. It imagines the shepherds saying goodbye to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt.
TRY THIS → Berlioz lived during a time when composers used musical clues to help bring stories to life. Throughout this piece, he gives special solos to the oboes; that's because oboes are symbolic of shepherds, who often play woodwind instruments like flutes and pipes. Listen carefully... can you hear the oboes?
CHARLIE PARKER • 1948
Considered one of the best jazz musicians of all time, saxophone-player Charlie "Bird" Parker performed this famous take on White Christmas at a jazz club in New York City. Jazz music is famous for improvisation, or the ability to make up music on the spot. Charlie helped invent bebop, a style of jazz music that is fast and complex.
When you listen to jazz music, you'll notice that the musicians take turns improvising; they each get a chance to shine in the spotlight.
TRY THIS → Jazz musicians often mix ideas from different songs as they improvise, creating a unique and exciting listening experience. As you listen along to Charlie's high-speed performance, see if you can find when he plays a little bit of Jingle Bells!