“Silent Night” Turns 200

One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.

Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.

Silent1
Like the town where it resides, the Silent Night Chapel is pretty, tiny and quaint.

The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.

Silent2
Picture this times 30 million. Note that only Gruber is credited.

The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.

Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).

Silent5
Two guys that could really sing but didn’t know where to put “Silent Night” on the record!

All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.

1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.

“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.

Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.

The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.

Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.

Silent6

Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.

Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.

The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.

Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.

Silent8

Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.

Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.

Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.

Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.

Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:

https://www.stillenacht.com/en/

http://www.visit-salzburg.net/surroundings/silentnightchapel.htm

http://stillenacht-oberndorf.com/

Silent9

Advertisements

Change of Season Part 2

“Feels like time for a change of season.” – Daryl Hall and John Oates

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” – Andy Williams

There’s a fifth season in our house and, although I live in Canada, I don’t mean the hockey season. There comes a day near the end of November when my family and I go all out for Christmas. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year. When I lived on my own in Apartment Zero (long story), I would put up my few meager decorations on December 1st because of “Diner”. In the late 1980’s, I loved Mickey Rourke and devoured all his movies. When I stumbled on “Diner” (1982), I fell head over heels. To this day, it’s my second favourite movie of all-time. “Diner” is set at the end of December and, as the years went by, it became something I decided to watch only in December – and every December. All December. Because “Diner” became something of a Christmas movie for me, I decided I would decorate for Christmas every December 1st. So, that’s what I did in the sad, old days; November 30th – nothing. December 1st – Christmas starts.

When I got married and had kids, I implemented the same Christmas policy. However, getting all the decorations out and up on December 1st got more and more difficult as we added more and more to our stock. The kids were thrilled with every additional knick knack or decoration we accumulated and things soon got out of hand. Then we decided that we would decorate our house on the Saturday before the last full week of November. We’d spend the Saturday getting it all out, decorating, watching movies, etc. and it would give us that full week to have everything out and up before or on the first of December. I would often take the Friday off from work to help get ready for the ‘Christmas bomb’ going off in the morning.

When the kids became teenagers, they became involved with the other young people at church and they started to go on the annual retreat which occurred every third weekend in November. This presented a problem because, for years now, the third Saturday of every November was Decorating Day. The retreat, though, was equally important so we decided they would go on the retreat and we would decorate the Saturday before – mid November – or the Saturday after – late November. Here’s where the debate really started; when is the right time to get in to the ‘Christmas spirit’?

We tried it the Saturday after. This usually would give us less than a full week in November and the 25 days of December to be decorated for the season. By the end of that Christmas we all agreed that it just wasn’t enough time. For one thing, we own a lot of Christmas movies and music. We found it hard to get all of our favourites – the list was long at this point – watched in the 4+ weeks we had. And I struggled getting all of my Christmas music – particularly the records, which had to be scheduled at appropriate times – listened to. We decided that we hadn’t had enough Christmas.

We tried it the Saturday before, figuring that more Christmas was better than less Christmas. This presented challenges as well. First and foremost was the fact that the second Saturday in November can fall on or before Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day). This day is very serious in our house and every year it’s important to us to honour our armed forces and those who have fallen in battle. We feel that it would be inappropriate to give ourselves over to the joys of the Christmas season when we should be considering those who have given their lives in the defense of peace and liberty. One year I remember Decorating Day fell on November 12th. That year we had a lot of Christmas. But this brought up a lot of things to consider, also. First, and perhaps least important, was the idea that when we go all out for Christmas, it is going to show up in our every day lives. In our attire, in our house decorations and in our social media presence. This can throw some people if they think it is too early. While I generally don’t factor in what others think of me and my family and the way we do things, I also like to consider that if some of our neighbours have a specific time they like to get in the Christmas spirit and they see our house and see that we’ve jumped the gun this can be a negative thing for some people, like seeing Christmas decorations in the store the day after Halloween. I know that in our home WE have a specific time and if I see Christmas stuff and I deem that it is too early (for me) that can throw me. But mostly the challenge for us was getting ourselves into the Christmas spirit as early as the first half of November – it just seemed early.

9a28068a02245b4e40a021ffe0a72955

It can be a bit of a challenge, Decorating Day. We often wonder if we’re ready. As I said earlier, you feel that you have to suddenly ‘turn on’ your Christmas spirit once the decorations come out. But here’s the way it usually works: once the Christmas decorations come out, your Christmas spirit turns on. Once you start seeing the cherished ornaments and once you start doing the traditional things, it just happens. But that’s not to say that it would ‘just happen’ if you put up your Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. Hey, we all love Christmas but watching “White Christmas” in August is simply not the same thing. You could argue that it’s actually wrong.

Here’s the thing: besides honouring the birth of Jesus Christ, perhaps the most glorious thing about Christmas is it’s fleeting nature. The years we started Christmas early, the thing we worried about was would the freshness sustain throughout the next 6+ weeks? Would we start taking the glow of the tree for granted? It’s like watching your favourite movie every weekend; is something lost or diminished? Does it become too commonplace? By the same token, watching “A Christmas Carol” in the spring or listening to your Christmas records all throughout the year just tends to remove the magic from those things. In the old days, they often purchased, put up and decorated their trees on Christmas Eve – ZERO chance to get tired of it. Just the opposite: it was a wonder to behold, like a shooting star or a sunset. “Oh, I love Christmas so much, I could sit by a lighted Christmas tree from September on!” Yes, but come December, something has been lost. Even if it’s still a magical feeling, it’s a three-month old magical feeling. There’s a difference. You CAN’T stretch it out. That goes against the very nature of the Christmas season.

When you think about it, the most magical day of the year is December 24th, Christmas Eve. Not just because of the day that’s on the horizon but also because ‘the season’ hasn’t begun to end yet. Let’s face it; Christmas Day – depending on how you do it in your family – come mid-afternoon, there is a sadness that can settle in. There’s a line from an old story by Christopher Morley that says it well: “Christmas is always a little sad, after such busy preparations”. My kids would get excited early in December. School holidays hadn’t started yet and they were anxious and impatient and I would tell them “don’t rush it! This is the good time because NOT ONE MINUTE of it is over yet. It’s still all in front of you”. Once anything starts, it starts to finish.

Suffice it to say that whenever we decorate for Christmas it is on. That Saturday morning, we’re up early-ish and I bring home breakfast from McDonald’s. Then I will go down and bring up our Christmas CDs. The first sounds of the season are either Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley. The first song is either Bing’s “Silent Night” or King’s “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” Because tradition. Then, my youngest son and I will start bringing the boxes up from under the stairs. You all know the feeling. It’s like a cherished friend coming back to town for a visit. You see decorations you love and maybe there is a story about them. Always it’s memories. Simply getting the stuff out is magical. Then, when it goes up, it is wonderful to see again. We always say that our house shrinks at Christmas. Not just the two Christmas trees but different Christmas ornaments and figures, etc. come out and fill up any empty space in our home. In our house, we change everything: dishes, dish cloths, face cloths, towels, clothing, music, movies, key chains, whole bit. And, as a friend of mine once remarked – I go ‘all Christmas media’: everything I watch, listen to or read is related to the season.

In the end, the last week or so of November you feel yourself starting slow, letting yourself get acclimated, letting it all sink in. Come the first of December, after the American Thanksgiving when you can be pretty sure that it is generally acceptable to be all in for Christmas, you are really ready to dive in to the joys of the season. Christmas is a lot like summer: it’s this magical place you get to visit for a short time. You give yourself over to it in many ways. Every year, I pray that I will be cognizant of where I’m at. That I will wring every moment of joy out of the brief time that Christmas is here. That I won’t take one minute of it for granted. After all, it is the hap-happiest season of all.

ROCKY