“Silent Night” is not a great Christmas song. It is a great song. Period. As another song famously says, “tis a gift to be simple,” and “Silent Night” is simple enough that it’s easy to overlook just how lovely the melody is. Nothing fancy, just a lilting 6/8 and a basic set of chords. And the words, whether you’re a believer or not, don’t get in the way; it’s a softly romanticized image of an ancient tale, or an inspired vision of the birth of the son of God, depending on your spiritual affiliation.
I think I was well into my 30s when I first realized this.
Part of the problem of course is that modern Christmas is anything but silent. Once Halloween passes, it becomes hard to avoid Christmas carols and seasonal songs in malls, stores, on TV, in ads, etc. One of our favorite seasonal pastimes now is to kvetch about all the holiday music, how awful it is and how intrusive and it’s ruining Christmas and blah blah blah.
And in a way, “Silent Night” suffers not only from its ubiquity, but from the very simplicity that makes it great. Christmas is a time for gilding the lily, and it seems like everyone who records “Silent Night” has to add more stuff – more voices, more strings, a big crescendo, an even slower tempo. Unlike, say, “White Christmas,” which benefits from a splendid, definitive recording – Bing Crosby, of course – “Silent Night” has become a blank canvas on which record producers throw gobs of musical paint. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard a recording of the song that captures the beauty of the original. One voice, maybe two, until the “sleep in heavenly peace” part, where you want 4-part harmony, all accompanied by solo guitar. That’s how Gruber and Mohr wrote it, and how they played it in that little Austrian church in 1818.
It was only when my first daughter was young and I was working out some Christmas songs on the guitar that I found myself thinking, holy crap – this is actually a great song! (I believe I thought this silently, though I needn’t have worried: with the way my kids talk, “holy crap” would sound like a genteel, Victorian phrase by comparison…)
Anyway, I’m still on the lookout for a genuinely good recording of “Silent Night.” If you know of one – let me know! Leave a comment.