Baroque Holiday Music


The season is filled with so much music, that it's hard to name a favorite. For some, it's familiar carols, such as Silent Night and Joy to the World. Younger fans embrace the stories of Rudolph and Frosty. But let's not overlook the glorious choral and instrumental music of the Baroque Era (1600-1750). Bach and Vivaldi never failed to excite us in works that alternate blazing trumpets and full-throated choruses with quiet moments of reverence. Over in Paris, composers brought a gentle warmth and charm to music of the season. And, of course, there's Handel's timeless Messiah. We'll sample all of the above and more in this special holiday-flavored Active Minds program.


During the early days of Western classical music – the Medieval and Renaissance – the music of the Roman Catholic Church dominated. Even as the Protestant Reformation unfolded in the mid-1500s, church services served as the public's most accessible introduction to the ever-changing world of European music. Yes, there were tunes played in the royal courts, mostly dance ditties and songs, but regular folks didn't have much access to those works (though many of them were drawn from popular street melodies, where a lot of influential music was introduced!). Since most composers were employed part-time or full-time by local churches and cathedrals, it's no surprise that a deeply sacred holiday such as Christmas generated hundreds of works designed to be integrated into church services. As the Baroque Era unfolded (1600-1750 or so), works celebrating Christ's birth incorporated all of the new developments in music, most of them invented and refined down in Italy. The rich, complex harmonies of the High Renaissance (around the 1500s ) evolved into more pure sounds in the Baroque – smooth and gentle in France, powerful and confident in the German-Austrian community, lively and personalized in Italy. What remained consistent was the mixture of quiet contemplation, inspired by the serenity of the manger scene, along with the sheer ecstatic joy of the birth of a Savior. Thus, composers were able to craft gentle melodies and harmonies, as well as all-out sonic spectaculars. That said, it's important to remember that most composers also wrote secular music for royalty, for themselves (if they enjoy performing in coffee houses, small theaters, etc.) and for public dancing. Each musical style – sacred and secular – bled into the other. Some composers even arranged popular songs and dances into their sacred works, to bring a little levity to a long, droning church service. Well-known hymns might also be adapted to instrumental compositions. Sometimes, sacred and secular would dissolve into one: The French composer Michel Corrette cleverly used one of Vivaldi's then-popular “Four Seasons” violin concertos as the instrumental support for a celebratory choral work. Inspired by the timeless grandeur of the Christmas Story, many composers created their greatest works for performance during the holiday season. Bach wrote six brilliant cantatas, gathered as the “Christmas Oratorio,” Handel produced his beloved “Messiah” in a matter of a few weeks, creating one of the season's most-performed choral works. Though the modern holiday has transformed into an odd blend of the sacred-and-timeless with pop songs dealing about such figures as Santa, Rudolph and Frosty, there's little argument that the choral and instrumental works of the Baroque reflect the true meaning of this celebratory holiday.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some of the  differences between Baroque Christmas music written for Catholic and those for Protestant services?
  • Who was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and why is he considered an important voice for Christmas music in the Baroque Era?

Reflective Questions

  • Those two moods of the season – reflective and joyous – make for a major contrast. Which do you prefer: one or the other...or both?
  • Which music do you think best sums up the meaning of Christmas?
  • We haven't mentioned carols – which are your favorites?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading & Listening

  • Hill, John Walter. Baroque Music: Music in Western Europe, 1580-1750 (The Norton Introduction to Music History).W.W. Norton Publishing. 2005. 525 pages. A complete survey of the Baroque, incorporating social, political and economic elements – all important in understanding the period. Some chapters may be a bit too technical, but overall this is a fine introduction to the period and its music.
    Click here to order