Stand Up for Silent Night

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 07:50 AM

In how many churches this Christmas Eve will "Silent Night" be the emotional climax of the service? This little carol is something very special.

Unorthodox at its creation, “Silent Night” was first performed on guitar in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818, outpacing by about 150 years the whole hippie-folk-instruments-in-church thing of late 20th-century America. There’s an old story about it being written as a last-minute substitute because of a broken church organ, but that neat little tale is probably not quite true.

There aren’t many songs, of any kind, that are simpler than "Silent Night." It’s a lullaby, with a gentle 6/8 lilt; it’s a true three-chord wonder; its melody is all on the scale – no accidentals. And yet, it does have a trick. The range of “Silent Night” is an octave and a fourth – just one note less than "The Star-Spangled Banner." While the national anthem has a reputation of being difficult to sing, nobody ever complains about “Silent Night,” but untrained voices are often stretched by it on one end or the other. You’ll notice it now, if you haven’t before.

Lots of Christmas songs, secular and sacred, are set in winter or describe wintertime scenes. On the other hand, the English lyrics to “Silent Night,” (the translation is credited to John Freeman Young) make no mention of cold or snow. And perhaps therein lies the key to the power of “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” isn’t nostalgic. It doesn’t look backward, as so many Christmas songs do. Except for the quick mention of quaking shepherds, it doesn’t even depict an ancient world. “Silent Night” is set in the present. Wherever, whenever you sing “Silent Night,” the miracle of Christmas is happening now. That’s why congregations return to it again and again, year after year. It’s as brand-new and miraculous as... the birth of a child.

My favorite “Silent Night” experiences of Christmases Past include an exquisite setting on organ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine some years ago; I don’t know if Dorothy Papadakos or Paul Halley played it, but it was extraordinary. I’ve sung “Stille Nacht,” the original German lyrics, at Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope. And for many years in my hometown church in Nebraska, the lights were lowered and the candles were lit as we sang “Silent Night” accompanied by, of all things, a gently, richly, quietly rolling marimba. (You weren’t expecting a marimba, I know. But it’s true. Get a marimba for “Silent Night” at your church next year, and you’ll see what I mean.)

What’s the best version of “Silent Night” you've been a part of?


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Comments [10]

Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

Of course most Christmas Eve services end with Silent Night, the congregation standing, holding candles lit from the next worshiper. It's very lovely, very simple, and very religious.

Jan. 17 2011 07:31 PM
Patricia Bliss from Boise, Idaho

Jeff, Silent Night is one of the first carols
that everyone learns. . .and the beauty of
it is what it evokes in our memories! I'm
glad we shared those memories in Nebraska so many years ago; they still
bring tears to our eyes. Blessings. . .
Patti and Loyd

Dec. 29 2010 07:56 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

The key to the appeal of "Silent Night" lies in a lot of things: its tranquility; its melodic arch; its association (in many listeners/performers) with Christmases past. The fact that it "makes no reference to cold or snow" is not that significant: a short list of traditional carols that also make no such reference includes "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "O little Town of Bethlehem", "O Come all ye Faithful", "Angels we have heard on high" . . . I think it's the simplicity and beauty of the music, and the image of calm that it suffuses.

Dec. 29 2010 10:47 AM
Vaughn Lindquist from Jersey City, NJ

My favorite Silent Night experience was in college at Grove City College in PA. The Christmas Candlelight Service packs 2000 plus people into the beautiful stone Harbison Chapel. The end of the service culminates with a singing of Silent Night with a descant sung by the college's Touring Choir. At the high point of each verse the entire congregation lifts their candles up and lowers them again at the end. A beautiful audio and visual effect that is very powerful.

Dec. 29 2010 10:41 AM
Dolores from New York

I am not a professional musician, but this Christmas season I was again aware that hearing just the first few notes of certain very special and familiar carols or hymns, Silent Night being one, immediately captured every Christmas of every year of my life in a single moment. Thank you, Jeff, and thank you, WQXR, for a heart-felt Christmas.

Dec. 27 2010 07:46 PM
Nhora Rodriguez

Dear Jeff: Pls. include me in the count-down program with these 3 pieces my husband and I love. Joaquin Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez, Beethoven, Piano Concerto #2 & Motzar, Jupiter Symphony. Thansk a miilion,We listened to you everyday, You are the best. Merry Christmas & Happy New Year. Sincerely, Nhora

Dec. 26 2010 04:42 PM
Michael Meltzer

I think if you poll musically talented people (who invariably have strong recollections of early musical experiences) you will find a large number who can cite "Silent Night" as one of the first pieces of music they remember loving.
It's fundamentally beautiful and goes right to the center.

Dec. 23 2010 07:31 PM
David from Flushing

I suppose I will be condemned to a place in the netherworld with Scrooge, but I have always considered "Silent Night" to be a saccharin ditty and my least favorite carol in the company of the comatose "Oh Little Town" and the never ending, "Oh Holy Night'.

Give me a good "Joy to the World" or "Hark the Herald" any day, but not these Victorian excesses.

Dec. 23 2010 12:59 PM
Elizabeth from Hoboken, NJ

Every year during our holiday concert at work (John Wiley & Sons), we all sing "Silent Night" with our wonderful guitarist, John Lehman-Haupt. It's beautiful and sweet and very, very special.

Dec. 23 2010 11:22 AM
David Beardsley from NJ

There is a version by Robert Fripp. :)

Dec. 23 2010 08:34 AM

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