Monday, December 24, 2018

Silent Night at 200

I'm going to do something I don't frequently do, which is to display a certain amount of ethnic pride here. In small amounts I don't think it can hurt anybody.

It so happens that I am part Austrian, so the fellows who wrote the famous Christmas carol Silent Night are of the same stock. My father grew up in a small Austrian village which is about an hour from Oberndorf, the town where the carol was written. His town is about 30 miles from Salzburg in the other direction.

The town of Zell am Pettenfirst, where my father grew up, as seen in 2010

The legend, with which you are no doubt familiar, is that on Christmas Eve in 1818 the parish organ broke down. Not having an organ available on that most special night of the year was a problem, but it was solved, apparently, by the use of a guitar (horrors!) and, by joining forces, the parish priest, who wrote the words, and the organist, who wrote the music, produced what has to be the most famous Christmas carol in existence.

I have long since past the point where I can swallow stories like that without some skepticism, and it seems that the text of the carol was written in 1816, so both parts of the collaboration did not happen on the same day. Perhaps my dramatic imagination (and yours?) thought of it all happening at once. Is it possible that the organ didn't break down either? Nobody has challenged this part of the story so far as I know.  What we do seem to know is that it was first sung on Christmas Eve in 1818, which means that this very evening it will be 200 years old. Or this afternoon, for those of us living in my time zone.

I've asked my Austrian father to read the text of the first verse, in German. His dialect ought to be fairly close to the one spoken by Gruber and Mohr. Sorry if you Leipzigers can't understand it!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

here is the commonly sung English translation:

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright,
'round yon virgin mother and child,
holy infant so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace!
seep in heavenly peace!

and a closer rendering of the actual German:

Silent night! Holy night!
All [are] asleep, [except for] a single light, 
Only the faithful, holy pair, 
Lovely youth with curly hair, 
Sleep in heavenly peace! 
Sleep in heavenly peace!

After his reading, I will play a few verses on our church organ, which, as of this moment, is not broken, though I am no stranger to organs that break down on Christmas Eve. The melody that I am playing is not quite the original: after it was first written, other people made slight changes in it as the carol became common property, and in this case, I think they actually improved it.

Silent Night in the dark with candles IS Christmas Eve for so many people now, and it is interesting to think that it owes its genesis to the inhabitants of a little Austrian village. I do, too.

Several years ago, while visiting the town of my father's childhood, I found a book chronicling the momentous happenings in that town of (then) under a thousand. Its voluminous 300-plus pages preserved events like the time somebody's cow got loose and wandered onto the road, stopping traffic (meaning a car). Or a list of every priest the town's single church had had since the 16th century.

You would not expect news like that to get picked up by Reuters and circulated globally. In fact, most of the news of the occurrences in that hearty metropolis would only be for the benefit of the residents themselves.

But something did emerge from a town like that for which a vast expanse of humanity is grateful. And because of my heritage, I can sing the carol with some sense, forged by personal connection, of its place of birth, and maybe the tiniest glimmer of what it would have been like to hear it on the night it was sung for the first time, in that little parish church like the one my father knew and which I've visited twice.

For the rest of you, I hope there is the joy of the season, and perhaps a much-loved custom, in hearing, and sometimes in singing, the carol each year, no matter where you are from.

Listen now as a pair of Austrians collaborates to bring you "Silent Night"!

Silent Night

(By the way, I expect full credit for Mozart, too!)

Merry Christmas.

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