Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love's pure light

When asked about their favorite Christmas songs, most people I know don't give the old standards much love. We all enjoy singing "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" and "Joy to the World," but our favorites are likely to be the ones we hear more seldom -- the ones that have the power to impress themselves upon us by means of unfamiliarity. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," with its minor modality, and "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming," with its unusual rhythms and gentle descent, are frequently mentioned. (The latter is my dad's favorite carol.)

But for all the pleasures of these tunes and their poetic lyrics, I think that "Silent Night" might be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. And it's our good fortune to be able to sing it every year. Its hushed quality means that one sings it in a fragile quaver that enhances the message. Its simplicity makes it accessible to everyone, and removes the barrier that medieval or Victorian flourishes, as much as we treasure them, place between us and the gospel.

Sung slowly, sung by candlelight, sung with minimal accompaniment or a capella -- everyone knows instinctively that this is the only way to experience "Silent Night." You rarely hear it put to a swingin' beat, subjected to crescendo or climactic arrangements, tarted up or modernized. It resists innovation, yet remains eternally fresh -- able to move us to the deepest emotion every time we encounter it. It's the one song that we have to sing, every Christmas. It's mandatory, not optional. It wouldn't be Christmas without it.

How lucky we are, then, that it is perfect in every way.

5 comments:

Stephanie said...

Umm, I can't resist commenting on your beautiful description here because I'm a descendant of the man who wrote the music, Franz Gruber. Have you ever heard the story of the song? It's a sweet story. It was played on a guitar the very first time in a small church outside of Salzburg, on Christmas eve, because the organ was broken. . .


How did you find yourself on the AARP website?

Eric Grubbs said...

I get rather choked up whenever I hear "O Holy Night" at a Christmas Eve service.

Doc Thelma said...

I'm partial to "Once in Royal David's City" which was our processional hymn in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in my Emory Chorale days. It's one of the few carols whose alto part I can sing.

the secret knitter said...

Usually Christmas Eve service ends with this played on guitar and the lights dimmed. What a fine recalibration of the season's noise and rush.

Adam Villani said...

That's pretty cool, Stephanie.