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Song: Silent Night (Stille Nacht)
Songwriters: Josef Mohr (lyrics) and Franz Gruber (music).
Silent Night (or Stille Nacht to give the song it’s original German title) is arguably the best-loved of all Christmas songs. So how do we begin to define that certain quality about Silent Night that sets it apart from other Christmas songs?
The key to the great success of Silent Night is that it treated a very familiar subject in an original and perceptive way. Rather than the “joyful and triumphant” tone of the majority of Christmas music of the time, Silent Night emphasises the simplicity, humility and peacefulness of the nativity scene. (O, Little Town of Bethlehem, which strikes a similar tone, was written half a century later.)
The song was written as a vocal duet with guitar accompaniment, since the church organ in the Nicola-Kirche in Oberndorf, Austria was out of order. This quiet lullaby must have made a great impression on its first listeners, on that Christmas in 1818, more used to all the stops being pulled out, as naves rung out with heavenly choruses singing “Glory to God in the Highest”.
Silent Night is in the style of an Austrian folk song, which further emphasises the human rather than the divine aspect of the nativity story. Franz Gruber’s manuscript of the song arranges two voices at thirds and sixths, which are typical of the genre, as is the triplet time. (In making my original notes for this article, I transcribed Silent Night in 3/4 time – I now see that Gruber wrote it in 6/8 – the difference is probably academic.)
Either way, the rhythm is simple and gently lilting, but very stable: we want to rock the cradle without jolting it. Every half-bar of the song (in 6/8) employs one of only three rhythmic cells, which are themselves closely related:
Having said that, these three rhythmic cells are mixed quite freely – note how the dotted figure is used at different ponts in the various phrases. (It’s also interesting to note how modern performances generally do not follow Gruber in dotting the two lines after “Silent Night”).
The sense of calm and stability is further enhanced by an echoing pattern between consecutive phrases:
It is also in these last two repeated lines that the melody reaches first its highpoint (both literally and emotionally), and descends to its resting place at the bottom of the scale. In this way Silent Night follows a pattern that we see again and again in well-constructed melodies: we work up to an peak around aroung the start of the last thirds of the melody, and then release the tension by falling back towards our starting point.
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