Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Medley of Christmas Carols Part I: Silent Night

Manuscript Copy in Gruber's Own Hand

Christmas is our most musical holiday – in fact, Christmas music is on the stereo as I write these words. 
But why is Christmas so musical?  Why are there so many carols, so many popular songs, and so much seasonal music available on the radio, Internet and television?  One reason, perhaps, is that the very language of Christmas is so musical.  The Gospel of St. Luke says that the shepherds in the fields were amazed when an angel came to them and told them of the birth of Jesus.  Luke writes:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.

Most translations read saying rather than singing, but these words are so musical that we can almost hear the heavenly host singing.  In fact, these words have been set to music multiple times.

Christmas songs were sung in the churches of Rome as early as 129 A.D., and St. Jerome mentions carols in the fifth century.  By the 1300s, Christmas songs were sung between the acts of miracle plays performed in church courtyards – a wonderful way of transmitting Biblical messages to a populace with low literacy.
It’s very hard to tell the origins of the earliest carols – the music traveled more widely and faster than any other musical form.  Today’s carol Silent Night, for example, was translated into at least six European languages within 30 years of its composition in 1818.

Perhaps the most popular carol in the world, Silent Night was written in 1818 in small-town Austria by the village priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and his organist, Franz Gruber.
On Christmas Eve that year, Father Mohr noticed that mice had damaged the church organ, making it unplayable.  He wrote the words to Silent Night that afternoon and hurried to the home of his friend, Gruber.  Gruber wrote the music in just a few hours and at midnight mass that evening the two of them sang it, joined by two women and accompanied by a Spanish guitar.  We have been singing it ever since.

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,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

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