One of my festive highlights is sitting down with family to watch carols from King’s College, Cambridge – or attending a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Britain’s Christmas choral tradition is one of this country’s finest musical assets, but considered internationally it’s one tradition among many.

This playlist draws on music from Sweden, Chile, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Dominica and Nigeria, suggesting a few places to begin a larger exploration…

1 Gustaf Nordqvist: Jul, jul, strålande jul

A year after the King’s Singers saved Christmas in 2020 (stepping in last minute to replace some Covid-stricken members of the King’s College choir), they released their rendition of Swedish composer Gustaf Nordqvist’s Jul, jul, strålande jul, happening upon centenary of its publication. Nordqvist’s charming, slightly slushy carol is similar to Berlioz’s The Shepherd’s Farewell in its chromatic bends, and Stille Nacht in its gently lilting 6/8 metre.

Like some of the best Christmas music – Coventry Carol chief among them – it has darker streaks running through it. After the gentility of the opening (the title translates as “Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas”), winter is beckoned in, and instructed to “wrap its white wings around the blood and turmoil of war, around all the people’s sighs”. Nonetheless, it’s a soothing, gentle way to step into Christmas.

2 Cristóbal de Morales: O magnum, mysterium

Recently, my favourite Renaissance Cristobal has undoubtedly been Chilean-Canadian film composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer and his track Renaissance, the hypnotic opening theme for Sky Atlantic series The White Lotus. What 16th-century Spanish composer Cristóbal de Morales would have made of the engrossing trance music of his namesake is anybody’s guess.

But Cristóbal de Morales’ setting of the O magnum, mysterium from the Christmas responsory text is also full of surprises: the stark, unnerving opening chords leads into a close, imitative texture for upper voices. The mood soon becomes graver, as words from the First Tract for Good Friday are added to the festive text: Domine, audivi auditum tuum et timui: Consideravi opera tua et expavi (O Lord, I have heard Thy hearing and was afraid: I have considered Thy works and trembled).

3 Sethus Calvisius: Freut euch und jubiliert

St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig has a rich musical history, stretching back past Wagner and Felix Mendelssohn to J.S. Bach, who was director of music at the church from 1723 to 1750. But before Bach and Mendelssohn made their mark on the Thomaskirche, there was Sethus Calvisius (1556–1615) who, alongside work as a composer and director, also produced a robust critique of the Gregorian calendar (though his suggested alternative never quite got off the ground).

In Freut euch und jubiliert, Calvisius tells the message of the angels: “Rejoice and celebrate; in Bethlehem will be found the dearest Jesus child and he will be your joy and delight.” Calvisius’ motet, with punchy, antiphonal brass and consonants flying all around, is a true Christmas joy.

4 Stepan Degtyarev: This Day, Christ is born in Bethlehem

In Belgorod, to the south west of Russia, stands a large statue of the composer Stepan Degtyarev (1766–1813), one of the region’s celebrated sons. Degtyarev was born into serfdom, under the House of Sheremetev, one of Russia’s most powerful families. (Visitors to Saint Petersburg can visit the family’s Fountain House, home to one of the world’s largest collections of musical instruments.) Educated in Saint Petersburg, Degtyarev spent most of his life in Moscow, composing one of the first Russian-language oratorios, Minin and Pozharsky, or the Liberation of Moscow in 1811, a celebration of the Russian liberation during the Time of Troubles around 200 years previous. 

Degtyarev’s choral music is regularly concerned with triumph and glory – indeed, his imposing statue stands with hands raised high above the head, as if in the middle of conducting Dnes’ Khristos v Vifleyeme (“Today, Christ is born in Bethlehem”). It’s a meaty affair, with a calmer pastoral middle section later replaced by volleys of choral sound.

An Armenian miniature painting of the nativity, c.1232.
© Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

5 Traditional Ukrainian: Boh Predvichnyy narodyvsya

If you feel like delving into Ukrainian carols this Christmas, Boh Predvichnyy narodyvsya (“God, eternal is born tonight”) is a great place to start. It’s perhaps the most popular Ukrainian carol, particularly in the Ukrainian diaspora, where it is traditionally sung on Ukrainian Christmas Eve on 6th January (according to the Julian calendar). Despite the international popularity, the carol links right back to the centre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

See this alternate version of the carol recorded near Lviv by the Polyphony Project in 2020.

It was originally published in the Bohohlasnyk, a collection of over 200 religious songs printed by the monastery in Pochaiv, the theological centre of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, in 1790. Like many carol traditions, the collection transposes the Christmas story onto the locality – as literary scholar Mykhaylo Vozniak notes, Boh Predvichnyy narodyvsya is a classic example of “the Bethlehem scenario being transported to Ukraine and its rural world of customs, circumstances, feelings and communication.” The opening unison scale forms a powerful anchoring phrase from which a tender hymn springs.

6 Traditional Wendat & Jean de Brébeuf: The Huron Carol, or Jesous Ahatonhia

Navigating carol traditions outside of Western Europe is littered with difficult questions, and no instance best represents this than The Huron Carol. It’s become one of Canada’s most popular carols, but even its name raises questions; as Will Pearson discusses a fascinating longread on the subject for Canadian magazine Broadview, “Huron” emerged as a settler descriptor for the Wendat people of northern Ontario, and can carry derogatory overtones.

Often acclaimed as Canada’s first Christmas carol (and accordingly held up as a celebration of the country’s indigenous heritage) the tune, written by the French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf in the 1640s, is actually based on the French folk song “Une jeune Pucelle”, with original words in the native language of Wyandot.

The popular – and eventually dominant – English-language version by Jesse Edgar Middleton from 1926 tried to keep some of that spirit alive by combining Christian imagery with Wendat-ish images, of Jesus in a “lodge of broken bark” instead of a manger, and so on. But in trying to strike that balance, Middleton rests firmly on the European representations of indigenous peoples. As Pearson puts it, “It is hard to see how Middleton’s imaginative lyrics, written by a British-born Canadian and set to a traditional French folk tune, could be called Indigenous at all.”

This version, arranged by Ross Duggin, sets the original Wendat words to a 17th-century version of “Une jeune fillette”, a relation of the folk song. (As an alternative, check out this version, in four languages, by Heather Dale.)

7 Ramón Díaz, arr. Tony Guzmán: ¡Llega la Navidad!

Choral singing in Dominica has a long history, stretching back to January 1494, when the first mass sung in the “New World” took place in the Columbus-founded settlement La Isabela, near the Dominican city of Puerto Plata. This short Christmas setting is by Ramón Diaz Freeman, a key Dominican composer and versatile musician in the 20th Century, and arranged by Juan-Tony Guzmán, a Dominica-born, Iowa-based composer intent on extending the popularity of music from his homeland.

Meaning “Christmas is coming”, ¡Llega la Navidad! is an example of a villancico: a poetic form with short stanzas and refrains that has become synonymous with Latin American Christmas carols. This particular tune, arranged for choir and percussion, comes in the form of a merengue, the Republic’s national dance.

8 Jean Sibelius: En etsi valtaa loistoa

After much deliberation, a set of Five Christmas Songs eventually became Jean Sibelius’ opus 1. The fourth sets words by the poet Zachris Topelius, continuing a relationship that had resulted in the wild and wonderful Islossningen i Uleå ãlv (“The Breaking of the Ice on the River Oulu”) for narrator, men’s chorus and orchestra. A directly political response to the restrictions imposed on Finland by Russia in 1899, Sibelius sidestepped censorship laws through the work’s dedication to Tsar Nicholas II (it predates the Sibelius’ Finlandia by just a few weeks).

En etsi valtaa loistoa (“I seek not power, glory or gold”) is a Finnish translation of Topelius’ original Swedish words, set to a gentle, unadorned hymn.

9 Alice Tegnér: Bethlehems stjärna

Alice Tegnér (1864–1943) was a composer and music teacher, writing prolifically for voices, and played a central role in creating Sweden’s children’s song tradition. The illustrated children’s songbook Nu ska vi sjunga (“Now we’re going to sing”) from 1943, which Tegnér worked on with author Elsa Beskow (often dubbed the Beatrix Potter of Scandinavia) became a widely used resource for Swedish primary schools.

Tegnér’s tune sets a poem by Sweden’s last Romantic, Viktor Rydberg, Gläns över sjö och strand (“Shine Over Lakes and Shores”), transporting it into a Christmas context. This version of the tune, arranged by Sarah MacDonald for choir, comes from the Multitude of Voyces project, which includes an anthology dedicated to sacred Christmas music from female composers (mostly) closer to home.

10 Christian Onyeji: Amuworo ayi otu nwa

Choral singing forms a key part in Igbo worship, something that predates the advent of Christianity in Nigeria. As musicologist Daniel Agu puts it, “there is no Igbo activity from birth to death and including burial that is not associated with music-making.”

The Nigerian composer Christian Onyeji (born 1967) continues the blend of both traditions, by composing, in his words, “African art music that is a logical continuum of African traditional music”. Amuworo ayi otu nwa, his setting of Isaiah 9:6 (“For unto us a child is born”), is full of musical earworms and joyous, snapped syncopations.