One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it its proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for its day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.
Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.
The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.
The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was Christmas Music, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.
Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering The Dean Martin Christmas Album. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was Christmas Songs by Sinatra for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. Elvis’ Christmas Album was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).
All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record Season’s Greetings from Perry Como. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering The Magic of Christmas. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s The Andy Williams Christmas Album.
1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.
“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.
Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.
The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to its Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.
Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.
Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album Winter Wonderland features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.
Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, Harry for the Holidays, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.
The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, Christmas Card. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.
Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But Elvis’ Christmas Album features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.
Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.
Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, Ki Ho’Alu Christmas. It is choice.
Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.
Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album The 25th Day of December bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.
Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:
Well written Gary I sure enjoyed reading what you have written about Silent Night being 200 yrs. old. You are gifted with your writing well well done. I sure learned something today.
Thank you very much!!
[…] Highlighting the stunning work of trumpeter and frequent Connick collaborator Leroy Jones, this 200 year old song gets a heartfelt gospel workout from the boy from New Orleans. Like Harry’s first Christmas […]