This holiday, I endeavored to compile a list of Christmas piano music by the great composers. The task turned out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated: Bach wrote a famous Christmas Oratorio (for orchestra and choir), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed a whole opera titled Christmas Eve, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a Fantasia on Christmas Carols (also for orchestra)… but Christmas piano music was almost nowhere to be found!
Not to be deterred from my quest, I was able to find a number of solo piano works with which to celebrate the holiday season.
Felix Mendelssohn: Six Christmas Pieces, Op. 72
Mendelssohn composed these pieces in the summer of 1842 while in England, though they weren’t published until after his death five years later. In England they were published as Six Christmas Pieces, though in Germany their title was Six Children’s Pieces. The Christmas appellation was surely the British publisher’s, not the composer’s!
However, Mendelssohn wasn’t entirely immune to the Christmas spirit: he did compose the famous Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” two years earlier, as part of his Festival Song cantata. Yet he wrote this cantata not to spread holiday cheer but rather “to commemorate the invention of the art of book printing”!
Franz Liszt: Christmas Tree, S. 186
Liszt’s Christmas Tree is a suite of a dozen solo piano pieces:
- An Old Christmas Carol
- O Holy Night!
- The Shepherds at the Manger
- Adeste Fideles (better known as “O Come All Ye Faithful”)
- Scherzoso: Lighting the Candles on the Tree
- Slumber Song
- Old Provencal Christmas Carol!
- Evening Bells
- In Hungarian Style
- In Polish Style
Liszt’s arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is especially beautiful harmonically (and has an interesting, if sparse, introduction in the Dorian mode)!
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a
Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons is a set of piano pieces based on each of the months. No. 12, December, titled “Christmas-Tide, is a long holiday waltz.
Béla Bartók: Romanian Christmas Songs, Sz. 57
Bartók’s Romanian Christmas Songs is a series of piano pieces of intermediate difficulty, likely for pedagogical purpose like much of his piano music. Arranged into two sets of ten pieces each, they were written in 1915, adding to his existing works based on Slovakian and of course his native Hungarian folk melodies. These Christmas carols would be sung door-to-door by groups of men… singing not of holiday spirit but of ancient myths and battles!
I wish you a happy holiday on behalf of key-notes!