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Christmas arrangements for the classical guitar to brighten your holidays.
This series of Christmas arrangements for classical guitar is made up of some of the most popular and beloved tunes of the Holidays. I have tried to preserve the melody, harmony, and structure of the songs you know so well while creating something new and fun with them at the same time. These arrangements fit a fairly wide range of playing ability and so there should be something for just about everyone here.
Greensleeves (Grade 3) is a transcription of the lute original from the Ballad Lute Book for the guitar. The piece is in 6/4 meter, very common in Renaissance music, and thus has a triple rhythmic feel. Dotted notes help the feel of the meter, so be careful not to rush through them. I have also included an ornamented version (Grade 6) so you can explore Renaissance ornamentation with your own performance. Be sure you can play the original without ornamentation and that the ornaments don’t disrupt the rhythms.
The First Noel (Grade 4) originated in Cornwall as a nineteenth-century hymn. My arrangement uses sparse jazz harmonies in places but is fairly straightforward. The “Noel” section from the end of measure 16 to the end is quite challenging for the left hand so I would recommend using the fingering given. Finger independence in the left hand is necessary to maintain the voicing as written.
The 12 Days of Christmas (Grade 5) is a clever eighteenth-century carol known as a “cumulative song,” where a new stanza is added progressively to the previous one(s) with each refrain. I have only provided a few of these variations, as the song would get rather repetitive on the guitar twelve times in a row. To really draw out the differences between each new stanza, the arrangement utilizes variations in intervals of thirds, sixths, and tenths on the “my true love gave to me” figure and so will require some left-hand independence work.
Jingle Bells (Grade 7) pays homage to the miniature parlor pieces of Francisco Tárrega and should be played in that style (glissandos, rubato, and use of tone color and articulation, such as staccato, should give it that classic Tárrega feel). This is the most difficult of the set: there is a lot of movement around the fingerboard and it requires several left-hand stretches and even a few awkward fingerings that will require left-hand independence and precision.
Away in a Manger (Grade 4) combines the two most popular versions of the song (by James Murray and William Kirkpatrick, respectively) into one arrangement. Some have attributed the words to the great German theologian Martin Luther, but the popularity of the tune has meant that there are many variants of the lyrics throughout time. While it is a Grade 4 arrangement, it does use artificial harmonics in the intro and outro, which may require some extra work for the Grade 4 player.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Grade 4) originated as a hymn from the eighteenth century (Veni, Veni, Emmanuel), but it became the carol we know today through John Mason Neale’s translation of it into English in 1851. My arrangement embeds the repetitive chant-like melody in a triplet arpeggio pattern. Those familiar with gems like Romanza or Tarrega’s Estudio in Em will recognize this pattern. The natural harmonics at the beginning and the end (and in measures 10-11!) mimic the sound of distant church bells. The chords in measures 17 and 18 at “Rejoice!” should be resonant and triumphant.
In the Bleak Midwinter (Grade 2) came to us first as a poem by nineteenth-century poet Christina Rosetti. It was later set to music by English composer Gustav Holst in 1906. My arrangement features a calm arpeggio accompaniment underneath Holst’s gorgeous mournful melody. The last note is an artificial harmonic on the nineteenth fret, and can be left out by a Grade 2 player if it is uncomfortable or new.
El Cant dels Ocells (Grade 7), or The Song of Birds, became hugely popular by cellist Pau Casals. But it’s actually a much older traditional carol from the Catalan region in Spain. It is a mournful tune, but the lyrics are quite joyful and celebratory. I have tried to imitate the cello sound in the first part with techniques you may find familiar from Villa-Lobos (who was also a cellist). The second part moves all the way up to the 12th fret and features more harmonic development. The melody draws from a phrygian dominant scale over the dominant chord, which is popular in Spanish flamenco music. So I have also included some flamenco elements with ornaments and other harmonies inspired by that tradition.
El Noi de la Mare (Grade 7), or The Child of the Mother, is a traditional Catalan carol that ponders what gift to give to the child. Raisins, figs, nuts, olives? Though ponderous in its lyrics, the melody is soaring and tender. The song has been arranged and recorded by thousands of guitarists around the world since it was first made popular by Miguel Llobet. The great Andrés Segovia played it in many concerts. There are many shifts in this short but challenging piece and they make it easy to interrupt legato on the first-string melody. So you’ll need to take extra care to shift quickly and connect the melody notes together. This is the only song in the book not arranged by me. I included it because it pairs well with El Cant dels Ocells and it is a classic piece in the repertoire.
Silent Night (Grade 4) heard its first performance on Christmas Eve in 1818 on the guitar! The music was first composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, an organist, and the lyrics penned by Joseph Mohr. For the first performance at a small church in Oberndorf on December 24, 1818, the organ was damaged due to flooding and so the accompaniment was played on guitar. This arrangement, made by Simon Powis, uses a Drop D tuning on the sixth string and harmonics to create a resonant texture. Pay close attention to the dynamics throughout to create the right atmosphere.
I hope you have as much fun playing these as I did arranging them! Happy Holidays!