Composers at Christmas, by Jessica Lambert

posted on   by  Loi Heldt

As the holidays approach, I found myself wondering about what some of my favorite composers did during the holidays. Luckily, some of them (and their family members) kept journals and wrote letters giving us a tantalizing glimpse into their holiday households.

The Mendelssohn family typically spent Christmas at home, enjoying quiet time with their extended family. Fanny Mendelssohn reports on December 25: The Christmas candles are burnt down, the beautiful presents stowed away, and we spend our Christmas day quietly at home. Mother is asleep in one corner of the sofa; Paul in the other, Rebecca absorbed in the Fashions…. Our Christmas Eve was very merry and pleasant. Felix had written for Rebecca a children’s symphony which we performed. For me he has written a piece of a different kind, a four-part chorus with small orchestra accompaniment on the chorale “Christe, du Lamm Gottes.” I have played it several times today; it is most beautiful.

Gustav Mahler, on the other hand, got the holiday blues in 1886 and wrote to a friend: Last night I spent a sad Christmas Eve once again sitting at home all by myself, gazing out, seeing all the windows opposite aglow with Christmas trees and candles. And then I again I saw before me yourself and your family, the old congenial circle, now lost to me…. then I no longer saw anything because a veil of moisture moved before my eyes, and the whole world, through which I am destined to wander without rest, was blotted out by a few tear-drops.

Brahms sent a letter to Clara Schumann in 1890 with this description of his holiday: How could I be better occupied on 24 December than sitting in imagination beside you at your breakfast table and talking and hearing all about the kind and charming things you are preparing…. Here next door in my library there stands a beautiful large tree which will remain concealed until this evening from my hostess’s two darling boys…. We could not have finer Christmas weather. All the trees and bushes are covered with frost and snow and it is a real joy to go out for a walk in the mild air. On that Christmas day Brahms had lunch at his favorite tavern, the “Red Hedgehog,” and took a nap in his favorite coffee shop later in the afternoon.

Perhaps the most well-known composer’s Christmas story we know of (and I would love to play this work this coming year) is that of Wagner in 1870 secretly writing Siegfried Idyll for his wife Cosima and performing it on Christmas morning. She wrote: When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew even louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his ‘Symphonic Birthday Greeting.’ I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household. After breakfast the orchestra again assembled, and now once again the Idyll was heard in the lower apartment, moving us all profoundly; Now I understood all R’s working in secret. 

Chamber Music Amici wishes you all a joyful holiday and our best wishes in the New Year!