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As Christmas gets closer, musical scores come to life, filling the air with their festive spirit. For this occasion, This is Beirut invites you, in the first article of this series, to (re)discover three masterpieces of Western art music that celebrate the Nativity, illuminating the season with their timeless brilliance.

As soon as the wind sweeps away the last russet leaves, nature hastens to don its elegant white coat. From then on, magical melodies begin to awaken, filling the atmosphere with a gentle nostalgia. Tunes that hint at the imminent approach of the magic of this season and the warm Christmas festivities. Despite the tragedies that stain the world and the vicissitudes of daily life, the celebration of Christ’s birth endures, illuminating the darkness of these days with its unchanging radiance. It offers a precious respite, inviting believers to reflect on the meaning of this divine incarnation and thus the manifestation of God’s immeasurable love for mankind. Beyond religious celebrations, Christmas remains a time conducive to unity, solidarity, love for one’s neighbor, and celebration. Throughout this festive season, a musical frenzy takes hold of the bustling arteries of cities, the sacred naves of churches, and the prestigious halls of opera houses. Whether religious or secular, artistic or popular, Western, Levantine, Orientalist, or other, music succeeds in bringing together voices and hearts beyond cultural differences, thus instilling the joy of this festival.

On this occasion, This is Beirut invites you on a musical excursion to (re)discover the great Christmas classics. From the timeless masterpieces of the masters of Western art music to the captivating melodies of popular songs, from traditional tunes to contemporary compositions, these harmonies continue to illuminate Advent and the Nativity celebrations with their shimmering colors. In the first article of this two-part series, we will highlight three masterpieces of Western art music especially created for the Christmas period: two pieces from the Baroque era and a ballet from the Romantic era. However, it is crucial to emphasize that other monumental works related to Christmas are also significantly important. They include among others the Midnight Mass for Christmas, H.9 by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), The Childhood of Christ, opus 25 by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), the Christmas Oratorio, opus 12 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), and Christmas of the homeless children by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Christmas Concerto by Arcangelo Corelli

Commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the Concerto Grosso in G minor, opus 6 no. 8, by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was composed around 1690, but was only published posthumously in 1714 in Amsterdam by Estienne Roger. The latter was one of the great publishers and printers of the time, notably of the works of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This concerto, “fatto per la notte di Natale” (“made for the night of Christmas”), as noted on the score, is a church concerto grosso in six movements. It involves a dialogue between a group of soloists, the concertino, specifically two violins and a cello, and a larger accompanying orchestra, the ripieno. Characterized by simple harmonic writing devoid of any ornamentation, this Baroque piece gives prominence to imagination, evoking the radiant divine child in the dark stable, the shepherds coming to greet the arrival of the Messiah, and the singing of angels. The fifth movement, Allegro, gracefully blends into the slow pastoral of the sixth and final movement, Largo. This movement transportis the listener to the heart of the pastoral setting of Jesus Christ’s birth, with subtle references to the shepherds and flocks near Bethlehem.

In the video below, the Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice performs Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, opus 6 no. 8, under the direction of Gianluca Capuano.

Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach

The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a titanic baroque musical work, that approximately lasts two and a half hours, celebrating the Christmas season. Composed in 1734, this Bachian masterpiece is one of the three oratorios composed by the Cantor of Leipzig, the other two being the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) and the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11). It is a collection of six cantatas, each designed for a specific day of the Christmas season: the three feast days (December 25, 26, and 27), New Year’s Day (January 1), the first Sunday of the year, and Epiphany (January 6). Johann Sebastian Bach explores various episodes of the Nativity, from the census in Bethlehem and the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Epiphany, including the annunciation to the shepherds, the circumcision of Christ, and the arrival of the Magi. The harmonic richness, spiritual depth, and contrapuntal mastery of the German master are fully and admirably manifested in this mystical work. The Christmas Oratorio captures the spirit of the Baroque era with its luminous chorales, expressive arias, and narrative recitatives, creating a majestic biblical fresco of the Incarnation.

In the video below, the Netherlands Bach Society, under the direction of the Japanese violinist Shunske Sato, offers an engaging performance of the first cantata from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker, opus 71, is a two-act fairy-tale ballet, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) between 1891 and 1892. It ranks among the three great ballets of the Russian composer, alongside Swan Lake, opus 20, and The Sleeping Beauty, opus 66. The libretto follows the theme of the French version by Alexandre Dumas of the fantastic tale by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, titled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The story begins on Christmas Eve. Clara Stahlbaum, a young German girl, receives a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier as a gift from her uncle Drosselmeyer. She wakes up in the middle of the night and heads to the living room to take a look at her new toy. The clock strikes midnight. At which time, the plot takes a fantastical turn. Clara hears the scurrying of mice and tries to escape, but they deter her. Suddenly, all objects seem to come to life and change in size. This is when, the nutcracker transforms into a charming prince, and takes Clara on a magical adventure to his kingdom … the kingdom of sweets.

The Russian composer marvelously captured the spirit of Christmas magic through a musical score imbued with rich and audacious harmonic colors, characteristic of Russian post-Romanticism. The use of the celesta, a contemporary instrument of his time, added a touch of magic and childlike sweetness to the ensemble. This musical subtlety is mostly visible in the elegant March (Act I, Scene 2), the famous Waltz of the Flowers (Act II, Scene 13), the poignant Andante maestoso, and the meticulous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Pas de deux (Act II, Scene 14). In the video below, maestro Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra honor this fantastic ballet.