Top 5: “Silent Night” in Song and Story

The Mrs. and I have a few Christmas totems we bring out every year. There’s the ornament I got from my first-grade teacher at Christmas of 1966, and the first-Christmas-together ornament we bought the year we were living in sin. Something even older is sitting on my desk right now: The Christmas Carolers’ Book in Song and Story by Torstein O. Kvamme, copyright 1935. It’s one of the most popular Christmas songbooks of all time, and it remains in print today. It belonged to my mother, and I am guessing that my grandparents bought it for her when she was learning to play piano, at some point in the 1940s. When I was a kid, I was enchanted by it, not only because I liked the songs, but also because of the historical essays that accompany many of the carols. Some of the magic I find in certain Christmas songs probably has to do with the way Kvamme’s descriptions of their creation fired my childhood imagination.

On “Silent Night”:

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the organ of St. Nicolas Church, Oberndorf, Bavaria, was in need of repair. Oberndorf was snowbound, and there was no repairman for miles around. Yet there must be some form of special music for the Christmas service. Franz Gruber, church organist, lay the matter before his friend Joseph Mohr, vicar of the church, suggesting that a new song might be helpful in the emergency. At this suggestion Mohr wrote the lovely verses of “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Gruber immediately composed the music for it and presented the new song at the Christmas Midnight Mass. . . .  One might think that some divine inspiration alone could make it possible to compose the words and music of such an immortal song in but a few hours. . . .

I could easily picture a little town in the mountains, and I knew what it was like to be snowbound. I knew how important music was to a Christmas church service, and I certainly knew “Silent Night.” It’s probably the first carol most children learn to sing, as it was for me. Kvamme (who was a teacher and band director just down the road in Stoughton, Wisconsin) understood its appeal and described it beautifully:

Wherever this exquisite carol is sung, it awakens precious memories of childhood, of lighted Christmas trees in darkened churches and homes. The very simplicity of the song and the tranquil beauty of its music seem to breathe the atmosphere of the humble manger-birth. It has sung its way into the hearts of mankind. . . .

I have 15 versions of “Silent Night” in my laptop music stash and many more in my library of Christmas tunes on CD. Here are some I especially dig: the one by blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite on The Alligator Records Christmas Collection; the tender-yet-swinging version by Kenny Burrell on Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas; the churchy-yet-bluesy version by the extremely obscure gospel organist George Conedy, and the off-key rendition by Tom Waits, who sang it coupled with his own “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” on Austin City Limits 30 years ago tonight.

Bonus track to make five: Funkster Bootsy Collins’ unique version from a couple of years ago, noted at AM, Then FM earlier this week.

I don’t know if Torstein O. Kvamme (or Franz Gruber or Joseph Mohr, for that matter) would find any of these to be exquisite, tranquil, or beautiful, but I do.

Coming Monday: a holiday gift for readers who are sick of my writing—a guest post. Coming later in the week: a short history of the break-in record.

“Silent Night”/Charlie Musselwhite (buy it here)
“Silent Night”/Kenny Burrell (buy it here)
“Silent Night”/George Conedy (out of print)

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