A Winter Playlist by Music Director Thomas Dausgaard

Seattle Symphony Music Director Thomas Dausgaard shares his favorite winter music with this specially curated playlist featuring works by Britten, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and more.

By Thomas Dausgaard

Editor’s Note: Music Director Thomas Dausgaard will be sharing monthly playlists throughout the 2020–2021 season. Featuring his unique blend of passion, intellect and joy, each playlist will introduce you to some of the music he loves as well as his unique approach to curation.

Winter is underestimated! It is a time to go inward, a time to live in anticipation of something wonderful to happen, whether it is the days slowly getting longer, reexperiencing of the birth of Jesus, the beginning of a new year or the hope for snow — we wait in joyful anticipation for a possibility of a rebirth, for a wonderful change in our lives. My playlist is a reflection of music I would listen to or play at this time of year. I will be very happy if this playlist can light a sense of hope, trust and maybe even joyful anticipation as you listen and read. Music has the power to change us, and thus to change the world. I wish you a wonderful Holiday season and hopefully a wonderfully different New Year.

Tracks 1–4:
Bach: Christmas Oratorio

One of my first experiences going to a concert was to hear this magnificent, festive music. My grandparents would take me to the local county house where in the grand hall it would be performed every Christmas with the Copenhagen Philharmonic. Later, when I came to study at the Royal Danish Music Academy, my choral conducting teacher, Professor Dan-Olof Stenlund, would conduct these performances and, luckily for me, he used the chorus from the Academy in which I sang. It was intoxicating taking part in these performances, and for me the opening chorus is one of the most joyful expressions ever. Please find time to listen to all six parts of this work! My highlights here include the powerful bass aria (No. 8) reminding us about how little Jesus cared for earthly goods, the pastoral shepherds' music at the beginning of the 2nd part and my favourite chorale giving strength to the shepherds as they face an angel, telling how Jesus will bring peace on earth.

Track 5:
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (1942) — "Balulalow"

The beautiful and rich tradition of English carols was taken to a new level by Benjamin Britten, arranging some for boychoir and harp and having them progress as a ceremony. I love his fragile sound world of harp and boychoir, and the balance of refinement and sophistication in the arrangements. Please, find time to listen to the whole Ceremony (26 minutes) — in my playlist you will find two of the most striking ones. First comes the ”Balulalow”, a Scottish cradle song for the baby Jesus with the text being a translation of Luther's Christmas song "Vom Himmel hoch."

Tracks 6–11:
Enna: The Little Match Girl

August Enna was a well-known Danish romantic composer in his time, and one of his descendants happens to be a good friend of mine. Enna's most famous work is his short opera on the fairy tale of H.C. Andersen, and I love how the music describes the world through the feelings of a child. It is the story of the poor girl trying to sell matchsticks in the streets on a cold New Year's Eve. To keep warm, she lights a matchstick and for each one she lights she has a dream vision — the final one being of her mother carrying her soul into heaven as she dies. Please, find time to listen to the whole opera — 35 minutes! I include here (from a CD with me conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra) the overture and the ending: the girl lights a match, and instead of the church wall in front of her she now sees a hall with a Christmas tree and children singing. Then the girl lights the last match where she sees her deceased mother waving to her. As the girl dies, organ and singing is heard from the church, the glowing music of a hymn ("The child Jesus lay in a manger") implying the resurrection of the girl.

Track 12:
Dejlig er jorden

This is one of my favourite Christmas songs, with music expressing something serious and fundamental in life. It is considered to be an old pilgrim-song about Paradise and about Peace on earth, and it is beloved for many other existential occasions.

Track 13:
Fanny Mendelssohn: December

Fanny Mendelssohn’s piano work ”The Year” is an inspired collection of shorter piano pieces, each of them original and with unexpected turns – please, enjoy the whole cycle when you can! In ”December” an icy winter wind beautifully and unexpectedly dissolves into the Christmas chorale "Vom Himmel hoch."

Track 14:
Sankta Lucia

The beautiful December tradition of a procession in darkness where children appear with lights has crossed the waters from Sweden to Denmark. The Christmas processions reenact the time of early Christianity when the sicilian Lucia brought food to hungry Christians hiding in dark catacombs while carrying light on her head. My experience with it has been the overwhelming feeling of the music gradually bringing light into darkness, and in the case of one of my sons once going in the front of the procession, hair entangled with [candle] stearin!

Track 15:
Chopin: Études: Op. 25, No. 11

Turning Fanny's piece on its head, this begins as hints of a chorale, then suddenly interrupted by the wildest storm to ever hit the keys of a piano in this stunning recording by Grigory Sokolov. His gentleness in the chorale lifts our spirits, and the force of the "winter wind" (as this étude is called) is exhilarating. Unfortunately Sokolov doesn't want to perform with orchestras any longer — please, seek out his recordings or hear him in recital!

Track 16:
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols — Deo Gracias

In this "Thanks be to God" the choir and harp unify in an ecstatic ending.

Track 17:
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances III, Lento assai — Allegro vivace

If you were at our Rachmaninov concert a few seasons back, you heard a choir preluding our performance with Russian orthodox chant. The melodies and harmonies of these chants inspired much of Rachmaninov's music, and most touchingly in his final work, the Symphonic Dances. Obsessed with the motif of Dies Irae, he here mixes it in with the music of orthodox chant in the final movement's Alleluia. This deeply melancholic work was composed in the US in 1940, and the jubilant ending is hard won, mysteriously ending with the dying out of a gong stroke. Kondrashin was a frequent and inspiring guest conductor with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, and I was lucky to watch his expressive hands shape the music in rehearsals and concerts.

Track 18:
Mozart: Ave verum corpus K. 618

Like Rachmaninov's ”Symphonic dances," Mozart’s touchingly simple ”Ave Verum” was written in his last year and this recording is a greeting to Leonard Bernstein, with whom I studied, and which was also recorded in Bernstein’s last year, 1990. This was less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it was Bernstein’s wish then to focus on music which could help Europe to make the transition from division and conflict to unity and peace. His interpretation is very romantic for this music, yet it has a unique intensity, a sense of a human reaching for another world.

Track 19:
Handel: Joy to the World

In my first concert as conductor of an amateur chorus in Copenhagen in my student days, I opened the concert with this fantastically joyful music. A doctor in the chorus was doing research into the heart and pulse — two essentials in music! — and he asked if he could measure my heart-rate in this concert. Attached to a measuring instrument by countless pads on my chest, I reached 180 beats per minute as I excitedly began this piece!

Track 20:
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Op. 71: Pas des Deux

The Nutcracker was one of Tchaikovsky's last major compositions, and every part of this ballet is a jewel. Can a simple downward scale turn into a jewel? Listen to how Tchaikovsky pours out his soul as the cellos make a downward scale near the beginning and the ’Pas de Deux’ becomes more than a jewel: it is the emotional centre of the whole ballet. Exceeding Christmas celebrations, toy soldiers, mice in fighting mood, and the Kingdom of Sweets, the music suddenly becomes present among us with real, deep emotions. Not long afterwards, Tchaikovsky composed his final Sixth Symphony, where the tragic finale can be seen as a further development of this gripping slow dance. But differently from the symphony, the 'Pas de Deux' ends like in an ecstatic vision of paradise as ever higher trills take us up. Evgeny Svetlanov was one of the great Russian conductors I had the privilege to experience in performance, and he is at his best in passionate music like this.

Track 21:
Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

My grandmother was a pianist, educated in part by Eduard Steuermann in Vienna in the 1920s. In her small but significant recording collection there were several with the Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, and like her I came to love his completely natural playing, as if pouring from a rich source within. For me there is a sense of quiet, joyful anticipation going through Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

Track 22:
Rachmaninov: Vespers, Op. 37: ’’Blessed is the Man”

This time of year is also a time of mystery. I smell the incense of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the glittering gold in the icons in a dimly lit church in Sofia, Bulgaria I once visited on a bitterly cold winter's day. Packed with people praying and kneeling, beautiful singing from a choir kept us warm, not unlike what I feel listening to how Rachmaninov transformed traditional Russian orthodox melodies into his beloved choral works. A few years ago the wonderful Latvian Radio Choir performed with me at the Proms, and after our concert they returned on stage for a very atmospheric "Late-night Prom" with the Rachmaninov Vespers under their magical conductor Sigvards Klava.

Track 23:
Berggreen: Vær velkommen

In Denmark, the first Sunday in Advent (normally around December 1) is celebrated by singing this very straightforward but powerful hymn, welcoming the new (church) year. The text is by our poet, thinker politician and much more, NFS Grundtvig (1783–1872); his influence on the advance of democracy, of enlightenment and education in Denmark can't be underestimated. This is a song about rebirth and welcoming the future — though in Danish language, I hope you can sense its appeal and solid trust in the future.

Posted on December 15, 2020