Arts Blog

Classical Composers’ Holiday Gifts

What’s more meaningful than a homemade gift – especially when the giver is a composer and the gift is music? Here’s a list of five classical compositions that were given as holiday gifts!

Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497): An Illuminated Chanson

Johannes Ockeghem was a brilliant 15th-century Franco-Flemish composer. Gifted with a deep and beautiful bass voice, Ockeghem spent his career singing, composing, and directing church music, in places like the cathedral in Antwerp, and later, in the French royal chapel under several monarchs.

Ockeghem had a particularly good professional relationship with King Charles VII (1403-1461), who reportedly loved music – we have records indicating the king’s purchase of precious illuminated songbooks for personal enjoyment. As a New Year’s gift in 1454, Ockeghem offered the king a book of his own songs. The present must have been well-received, because for New Year’s Day 1459, Ockeghem went a step further and gave the king a lavishly illuminated copy of one of his chansons, or secular partsongs. We don’t know which of his songs was the gift on this occasion; any of them would be a worthy gift for a royal, as you can hear from Ockeghem’s chanson Ma Maistresse (My Mistress). Like many of Ockeghem’s works, this chanson features a glorious part for bass voices like his own.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847): A Year in Piano Music

In 1839, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel traveled to Italy with her husband Wilhelm and their young son Sebastian. She spent the better part of a year visiting Venice, Rome, and Naples, soaking up the musical and cultural flavors of Italy. One of the musical fruits of this trip was Hensel’s piano cycle Das Jahr, a set of thirteen pieces, one for each month of the year plus an epilogue. The cycle is full of musical images of the Italian trip, like a Tarantella for Carnaval season in “February.” Das Jahr also travels home to Hensel’s life in Berlin: “December” depicts a dramatic snowstorm, and ends by quoting the Lutheran Christmas carol, “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (From Heaven High I Come to You).

Fanny Hensel completed Das Jahr on December 23, 1841, and presented the set to her husband as a Christmas gift. Soon afterward the couple embarked on an artistic project together: a beautiful album edition of Das Jahr with epigrams from their favorite poets and handpainted illustrations by Wilhelm, who was a Court Painter and art professor in Berlin.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896): Three Love Songs

Soon after the Hensels’ return from Italy, another artistic couple celebrated their first Christmas as newlyweds. Clara Wieck married Robert Schumann in 1840 after years of fraught courtship. The two had met when Robert was studying piano with Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck, who threw Robert out of the house when he discovered their relationship. Clara and her father were close, and she felt torn between her loyalty to her father and her love for her sweetheart. Clara and Robert eventually had to sue Wieck for the right to marry.

For Christmas of 1840, Clara Schumann presented Robert with three songs she had composed that year: “Am Strande,” (On the Shore), “Volkslied” (Folk Song) and “Ich stand in dunklen Träumen” (I Stood in Dark Dreams). All three songs explore the longing of star-crossed lovers: for example, in “Am Strande,” a woman gazes across the stormy ocean which divides her from her beloved. Perhaps these songs were Clara’s way of telling Robert how she’d felt during the long, challenging courtship that led to their first Christmas together.

Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921): A Fairy Tale Opera

One musical holiday favorite actually started out as a Christmas gift. On Christmas of 1890, composer Engelbert Humperdinck presented his fiancée Hedwig Taxer with a singspiel he’d composed for voices and piano. (A singspiel, or “singing-play,” is an operatic work with songs and dialogue – Mozart’s Magic Flute is a famous example.) The libretto was written by Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette, based on “Hansel and Gretel” by the Brothers Grimm. The next year, Humperdinck orchestrated Hansel and Gretel and expanded it into a full opera, in time to offer a draft of the complete work to Hedwig, now his wife, on Christmas of 1891.

In a couple of years, Humperdinck’s charming fairy tale became a sort of Christmas gift to the world, premiering in Weimar on December 23, 1873, under the direction of Richard Strauss. The opera was an instant hit and has been delighting audiences ever since, especially during the holidays.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934): A Musical Christmas Card

In 1897 Edward and Alice Elgar sent a musical gift to everyone on their Christmas card list. Elgar composed a charming little partsong to a traditional text honoring his home, the town of Malvern: “Grete Malverne on a Rocke.” The text came from a book entitled Historic Worcestershire, by W. Salt Brassington (1894). The Elgars had this little song printed on their Christmas cards, as a sort of Victorian corollary to the family photo cards you might send during the holiday season.

In 1907, Elgar’s publisher Novello received a request from their ailing retired employee J.A. Jaeger. Jaeger was Elgar’s close friend, immortalized in the gorgeous “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Jaeger wanted Novello to turn Elgar’s Christmas card tune into a published carol for all the world to enjoy.  In 1908, poet Sharpcott Wensley wrote a Christmas text for Elgar’s tune, which was published as “A Carol for Christmastide.”

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