7 Lesser-known Classics for your Winter Playlist

You’ve heard the Nutcracker and Vivaldi’s Winter, but have you heard these lesser-known pieces of classical music to put you into the spirit of winter? From the desks of Schumann and Tchaikovsky to the computer of Max Richter, these 7 Winter Classics are a must-listen for long-time fans or newbies of Classical Music alike.

1. Hodie, by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams’ most popular Christmas pieces include his Fantasia on Greensleeves and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, but we’re starting this list off with his incredible, but fairly unknown, Christmas Cantata: Hodie (pronounced HO-dee-ay). Vaughan Williams composed Hodie (or “This Day”) near the end of his life (at the ripe age of 82). The text is taken from the bible and the works of John Milton and Thomas Hardy.

The piece opens with the brass section blasting the Hodie theme, followed by proclamations of “Nowell” from the choir and the vespers for Christmas Day. This opening and the vespers are sung in Latin, but the remainder of the piece is in English. Hodie is a festive start to the holiday season.

2. Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

While audiences around the world can’t help but know the Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known, early winter masterpiece is his Symphony no. 1, subtitled “Winter Daydreams.” Written shortly after Tchaikovsky started teaching at the Moscow Conservatory, this ode to Russia’s harsh winters was finished when the composer was only 26.

Though only the first and second movements come with representative, winter titles, the nervous energy of the 3rd movement of this symphony suggests a shivering rush through the winter’s cold to the warmth of home.

3. Christmas Prelude for Orchestra, by Vitězslava Kaprálová

Vítězslava Kaprálová was an artist who died too young. Born in 1915, her creative output was cut short after an untimely death in 1940 at the age of only 25. But what she did leave behind bubbles with youthful spirit and exuberance. Her music and persona have a strong following around the world. In the Amazon show Mozart in the Jungle, the character Lizzie imitates and celebrates Kaprálová by dressing in the composer’s characteristic white shirt and black bowtie.

Kaprálová’s Christmas Prelude for Orchestra is an energetic celebration of the Christmas season. Built from pieces of familiar tunes, you won’t hear your Christmas favorites in their entirety, only masterfully composed fragments of them.

4. Symphony no. 1 “Spring,” by Robert Schumann

The “Spring Symphony” by Schumann may seem an odd addition to this list, but this work was actually written in January and February of 1841. Premiered that March (in Leipzig under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, no less), the symphony looks forward to the coming warmth of Spring. “Could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into your orchestra as they play?” Schumann wrote to the conductor Wilhelm Taubert. “That was what was most in my mind when I wrote.”

The symphony opens with an “awakening” call in the brass. Some scholars believe that this horn call evokes the final lines of Adolf Böttger’s “Spring Poem,” which played an important part in Schumann’s inspiration. Translated to English, it reads “O, turn, O turn and change your course/In the valley, Spring blooms forth!” The rest of the first movement is based on this awakening call.

Hiver-Printemps by Ernst Bloch

Ernst Bloch is perhaps best known for musical language inspired by his Jewish heritage, which, he said was “the only way in which I can produce music of vitality and significance.” His Suite Hébraïque for solo viola, Schelomo; Hebraic Rhapsody for solo cello, and Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Hassidic Life) for solo violin stand as some of the best concertos of the 20th century.

But this two-movement work by Bloch comes from his early period, before he developed his distinctive compositional voice that we hear in the Hebrew pieces above. There is little written about these two “poems” for symphony, but we can safely assume they are meant to evoke the ethos of each season. Especially clear is the longing for Winter to give to Spring, just like Schumann’s Symphony above.

Winter 2, by Antonio Vivaldi and Max Richter

Written in 2012, Max Richter’s “Recomposed” reimagines Vivaldi’s Four Seasons through a contemporary lens. Often surprisingly subtle, Richter’s recompositions bring new life Vivaldi’s monumental classic. Through melodic combination, minimalistic transformation, and nuanced reimagining, these pieces shine as one of the most creative contributions to music in the past decade.

The 2nd movement of Winter is a particularly simple, but effective, reimagining. Static, sparkling strings behind an almost improvised violin solo bring the listener to an entirely new world. Put on some headphones and enjoy.

Fanfare on Amazing Grace, by Adolphus Hailstork

“Amazing Grace” is one of the most well-known hymns of all time. But what most people don’t know is that the poet and clergyman John Newton originally wrote the words for a New Year’s Day sermon. Amazing Grace is now the most significant hymn in America, especially in the black community, where it has been adopted as a classic spiritual.

Adolphus Hailstork’s setting in this piece brings a triumphant, celebratory quality to the music. It is the perfect way to kick off your holiday season and look forward to the new year ahead.

There you have it! 7 lesser-known pieces of Classical Music to add to your winter playlist. Let us know your favorites by reaching out on our contact page, and be sure to share this post with the music fans in your life!

Jeremy D. Cuebas
FCS Assistant Conductor

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