Spotify Christmas: Joy to the World

Published by The Spectator

Distilling your Christmas favourites into a succinct playlist is like trying to cram the creator of the universe into a manger – not entirely impossible, but it needs a bit of thought and planning. Just as the Christ-child had to surrender aspects of divinity, a playlist must compromise somewhere. But kenosis is traumatic. What goes? The Pogues? That’s easy enough. Mariah Carey? That’ll upset Fraser. Cliff? Oh, steady on. And yet it’s terribly difficult contemplating the eternal wonder of the birth of the Son of God with Cliff at Christmas ringing in your ears. Buried beneath the glitz and tinsel we so easily lose sight of the baby born in a stable 2000 years ago. So I’ve included a healthy dose of theological orthodoxy in this list, along with happy memories of Christmases past.

In the Bleak Midwinter – Choir of King’s College Cambridge (Holst/Rossetti)

One of the few carols you can sing during Advent without feeling premature. This features the wonderful words of Christina Georgina Rossetti set to music by Holst, sung by the incomparable choir of King’s College Cambridge (without which no Christmas would be complete). The haunting melody is as bleak as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and yet it still manages to put a warm glow in your heart. It’s a beautiful meditation on the eternal meaning of the Incarnation, which you can watch in the video above.

Chorale in A minor from Christmas Oratorio, Part I – Sir John Eliot Gardiner; Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (Bach/Gerhardt)

The first part of this oratorio (‘for Christmas Day’) describes the birth of Jesus, and this brief but beautiful chorale asks ‘How shall I receive Thee and encounter Thee?’. I hesitate to reflect, because someday I will encounter Him face to face. And it won’t be away in a manger.

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

For Unto Us a Child is Born – Sir David Willcocks; Academy of St Martin-in-the-Field and Choir of King’s College Cambridge (Handel/Isaiah)

Here, Handel focuses on the Word made flesh: the word ‘born’ is stretched over a vast 56 semi-quaver expanse of irrepressible excitement and joy. And then, in clear exclamations, we’re told that ‘his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace’. It is thrilling music, to say the least.

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

The Boar’s Head – Magpie Lane (trad.)

Like most boys of a certain age at a certain type of school, I used to sing in the choir. Over the years I advanced from treble, through alto and tenor, to basso profundo. And I seem to remember singing about some poor boar’s severed head every Christmas. Rather like the Latin Mass, I had absolutely no idea what I was singing about until I was 14. This excellent recording is faithful to the carol’s 15th century origins. It’s all about pagan mid-winter sacrifice for new-year favour; a practice appropriated by the Church as an offering to the Lord:

Caput apri defero (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino (Giving praises to the Lord).

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

O Holy Night – Nat King Cole (Adam/Cappeau)

Generally speaking, this song is pure Christmas cheese, usually belted out with all the subtlety of an X-Factor finalist. But this effortless version by Nat King Cole is like drinking Baileys to candlelight in front of a glowing log fire. The warmth is deep; the voice pure velvet.

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

Little Town – Cliff Richard (Eaton/Brooks)

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Cliff is a Christmas institution (not to say a national one), bequeathing such Yuletide classics as ‘Little Town’, ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ and ‘Saviour’s Day’. Despite popular recollection, this song never actually made it to No.1. Frankly, I’d much rather have it in the top slot than any of the pap we have to put up with today. I don’t want to sound curmudgeonly in the Season of Goodwill, but I remember when the race to be Christmas No.1 was exciting. Then along came the Grinch, aka Simon Cowell, who stole it all away.

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

Breath of Heaven – Amy Grant (Eaton/Grant)

The journey to Bethlehem is usually told from the little donkey’s point of view: dusty road, plodding onwards, precious load. It took an inspired Nashville collaboration between Chris Eaton and Amy Grant to find Mary’s voice: cold and weary, frightened, alone. This young girl had to make one hell of journey just days before the trauma of childbirth. How desperate she must have felt. This is ‘Mary’s Song’, and it is deeply touching.

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)

Always Christmas – Nanette Welmans (Castle/Hilton)

Always Christmas

I co-wrote this with Ben Castle years ago, and it reminds me of some great Christmases. Throughout the early 1990s, I directed a number of variety shows on the West End, in which the late, great Roy Castle starred. I have many happy memories of Christmas with the Castles (which should have been a TV programme), and some even happier memories of New Year’s Eve at their home in Bournemouth, sitting round a roaring log fire composing ‘Ode to a Haggis’. This is dedicated to the glorious memory of Roy Castle, who is now in a place where it is indeed always Christmas.

Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar – Gerald Finley (Cornelius)

Joy to the World – John Rutter; The Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Handel/Watts)

This is classic Rutter, with all the requisite trumpets and drums heralding Christ’s triumphant return (it’s actually a celebration of the Second Coming rather than the first, but we won’t let that get in the way). I love the fact that Handel recycled the theme of the refrain (‘Let heaven and nature sing…’) in the recitative ‘Comfort Ye’ in his Messiah. In all honesty, I don’t mind if Midnight Mass ends with this, ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, or ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ – their unified theme is the triumphant joy at the birth of Jesus, which passes understanding. Merry Christmas!

(You can listen to this song on Spotify here.)



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