Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) is perhaps this composer’s best known cycle for organ. The nine movements of the work are largely contemplative, exploring many colors of the organ. Dieu Parmi Nous is the cycle’s finale, and treats the narrative of the entrance of Christ into the world as an exciting, grand fanfare, full of joy. Messiaen’s heading to the movement includes these quotations from the Bible: “Then the Creator of the universe laid a command upon me; my Creator decreed where I should dwell. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”
Jean Langlais’ La Nativité is a beautiful movement sharing the name of Messiaen's cycle, and coincidentally was written around the same time. A real contrast to the Messiaen, Langlais' work is a charming, almost sentimental, depiction of the birth of Jesus with vignette-like scenes depicting the manger, the angels, the shepherds, and the Holy family.
In five movements, the Canonic Variations on the Christmas Chorale From Heaven Above to Earth I Come constitute one of Bach's most famous and masterful works of counterpoint from the last decade of his life. The Variations were published in 1747 (making it one of a very few of Bach’s pieces to actually go into print during his lifetime), and Bach subsequently revised it, with a famous manuscript copy in existence. The hymn Vom Himmel hoch is Martin Luther's most famous Christmas Chorale.
Among Reger's last compositions, the Seven Pieces Op. 145 were composed in 1915-1916, as the German war effort escalated, and shortly before Reger's death at the age of 43 on May 11, 1916. About Weihnachten, the scholar Christopher Anderson writes:
Weihnachten presents a complex picture, with a Tristan-like opening that leads to a statement of Daniel Sudermann’s sixteenth-century Advent chorale “Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen.” ("A ship is coming laden.") The music continues on to introduce a second chorale, “Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen” (“What shall I, a sinner, do?”), its tune placed in the bass, the associated text expounding upon the desperate nature of the human condition. After an enormous crescendo, the music falls back to the nether regions (“a very dark color,” as Reger prescribes), evidently illustrating the despondency of the sinner as yet unredeemed. Upon this scene now breaks, più largo and voiced high in the manuals, Luther’s iconic Christmas song Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her. But Reger is not content with this merely: Franz Gruber’s nineteenth-century tune Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! enters on a different manual in counterpoint with Luther’s chorale, the two melodies joining hands in an idyllic conclusion. The symbolism of the well-known Lutheran melody intertwined with Gruber’s Silent Night (sung in Reger’s day overwhelmingly in Catholic communities) cannot be missed: the Incarnation brings redemption as the reconciliation of all believers in a united Church. This is some of the most marvelous music in Reger’s organ œuvre.
Alexandre Guilmant, the famous Organist Titulaire of the Church of La Trinité in Paris (where Messiaen subsequently and famously served as Titulaire) composed these charming and delightful settings of traditional French Carols. Guilmant’s pieces continue the French tradition of organists bringing music from the streets into the church at Christmas time.
Dean Billmeyer, Nov. 2021