The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes for a really great holiday classical album? NPR asks a Grammy-winning expert. What do you think? | December 13, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

From now to the holidays, we are sure to hear a lot about specific individual recordings that merit your attention as holiday  gifts – from single CDs and DVDs to box sets with dozens of recordings, many of which have been featured here in the past couple of weeks.

But what goes into making a really great and really memorable holiday album?


Of course, such things are easy to dismiss if you are a really serious “music lover.” But you know what? Many a lesser selling work has been financed by the profits from holiday recordings – and we are not just talking about “Messiah.”

Anyway, what makes for a get holiday album? That is the question that NPR’s terrific classical music blog, “Deceptive Cadence,” put to an expert from the industry who has won dozens of Grammy awards (below).

Now, one smart mouth reader said that all holiday albums boil down to Muzak or elevator music – “not just a melody but a management tool,” as the old motto put it.

I am not so sure, especially given the popularity of holiday-themed concerts. And if you think about it, holiday music is just another form of occasional music — like the wonderful “Pomp and Circumstance” marches by Sir Edward Elgar or the”Royal Water Music” and “Royal Fireworks Music” as well as “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel or “Gloria” by Antonio Vivaldi or all the cantatas and passions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

grammy award BIG

But here is a link to the story:

What do you look for in a memorable holiday album?

Music that is new to you?

Interpretations that seem fresh?

A consistency of theme?

Do you have a favorite holiday album, and what is it?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Correction: The Poulenc is Four Christmas Motets (Quatre Motets de Noel)


    Comment by Ron McCrea — December 14, 2013 @ 9:03 am

  2. I was lucky as a child to have a mother who collected sacred music to use with the liturgical modern dance compositions that she danced with young women in our Congregational church. She danced a solo to “There Is No Rose of Such Virtue” from the Britten Ceremony of Carols, and the entire album is a favorite, so haunting and mysterious.

    She also had the unusual Alfred Burt carols (“The Star Carol” and others), which I’ve just reordered, and the Robert Shaw “A Festival of Carols.” And she had the Sir Thomas Beecham choruses and arias from “Messiah.” I came to love it so much as a 12-year-old that when we had some visiting members of the Cleveland Orchestra at our house, I asked her friend, a viola player, whether they would be playing the “Messiah.” He said they would, then crushed me by adding, “You know, there is a story about the violinist who dreamed he was playing the ‘Messiah” and woke up to find that he was.”

    In college I sang the Vivaldi “Gloria”; the “Et In Terra Pax” movement is wonderful for the season. We also sang the Bach “Christmas Oratorio.”

    Wisconsin Public Radio has introduced me to new favorites in recent years: Louis-Claude Daquin’s thundering “Twelve Noels” for organ; and, just this week, Francis Poulenc’s “Four Noels,” performed by the Tiffany Consort. They grabbed my attention right away and only later did I learn who the composer was.

    One other Christmas favorite that is not, strictly speaking classical, but definitely a classic of American hymnody I first heard on Garrison Keillor: “Jesus the Light of the World,” from the album “And the Glory Shone Around” by The Rose Ensemble. It plays in your head for days.


    Comment by Ron McCrea — December 13, 2013 @ 10:27 am

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