“All on a Silent Night”: A song of peace and comfort in difficult times

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I sang a version of “Silent Night” called “All on a Silent Night” as a soloist, for the congregation at Bethany Presbyterian in Huntington, New York. My decision to perform involved the Music Director of the church partially talked me into it and validation from members of the congregation when they heard me sight sing this piece on the first try.

Since last Fall, I had been attending the Bethany Presbyterian Church in Huntington. Members of this community have been supportive, kind and, as of very recently, encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone as a newcomer. One Sunday after service, I was chatting with the Music Director and had told her about some of my performance experience, including my time with the Syracuse University Women’s Choir, the Huntington Women’s Choir, and my ability to play piano. She pulled me to the grand piano at the front of the room, to show me a version of “Silent Night” written by Becki Slagle Mayo; this rendition of the song was for a two-part Chorus and Piano with an optional cello. This version was titled “All on a Silent Night.”

The Music Director played a bit of the song and had asked me to follow the vocal melody in the top line with the accompanying music. After receiving validation from the director, and a few members of the congregation, I had decided then and there that it was only natural that I would perform this song. That’s when I decided to flex my musical muscles again, which involved practicing the piece with the music director and, most of the time, on my own.

“All on a Silent Night” was written in an ABA form; the ‘B’ section includes the melodic composition that resembles the original by Franz Gruber[i], while both ‘A’ sections include additional text and an original melody by Mayo[ii]. The parts which Mayo wrote for a soprano, includes a range from a D4 to an E-flat 5 on the piano, a range that just stretches over an octave – call it an octave and a half. The sections composed by Mayo presented a happy challenge, as D4 is a low note for my voice, while E-flat 5 borders the limits of my upper register. I especially liked how that E-flat 5 note was assigned a mezzo forte – more like a surprise forte – in the middle of the fourth bar into the music followed by a crescendo one measure long. There was a decrescendo in the last two measures of the seventh bar, thus concluding the first ‘A’ section.

One might think that Section ‘B’ of this song, which resembles the version of “Silent Night” we all might know, is simple, but I soon realized that the complications hide in the details of how to properly pronounce the words. The authentic version of Gruber’s song was written in German in 1818, and then translated into English in the middle of the 19th Century[iii]. Based on my experience, English is one of the toughest languages for singing an art song composed during these time periods, because the best way to clearly pronounce a sung word in English is to put on emphasis on the consonant of the first letter and the consonant of the last letter, like the word ‘night.’ However, in this word, a singer must make an effort to pronounce the middle letters in a way that makes them softer. More specifically, the singer should sound out a word that has a similar spelling to ‘naught’ not ‘night.’ When signing a word that starts with the letter ‘i’, especially like ‘infant’ that ‘i’ must receive a more acute pronunciation like how one would hear ‘ee’ like in the word “Halloween” or “seen.” Otherwise, if that ‘i’ in ‘is’ or ‘infant’ receives the same pronunciation in a sung verse as it does when spoken, that ‘I’ will sound like an ‘ugh’ to the listener.

The proper pronunciation of the lyrics within “Silent Night” is necessary to help tell the story about the time of Jesus Christ’s birth. However, the origin of this song, according to the Silent Night Association, gives the tune an additional meaning:

In the time “Silent Night” was written, the Napoleonic wars had come to an end, and new borders in Europe had been set with the Vienna Congress. The ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg lost its status as an independent country and was forced to secularize. In 1816, its lands were divided into two, with part assigned to Bavaria and the larger portion relegated to Austria. The Salzach River also became the new border between the town center of Laufen and its suburb Oberndorf by Salzburg. For centuries, the Salzach River had provided transportation for the salt trade, which provided a basis for the local economy. During the Napoleonic wars, the salt trade declined and never fully recovered, causing a depression in the local economy with the transportation companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Further, Oberndorf by Salzburg was the site where “Silent Night” was first performed.[iv]

Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest of the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, wrote the text for “Silent Night.” His previous place of service, Mariapfarr, suffered greatly during the withdrawal of troops from the Bavarian occupation in 1816 and 1817. With this in mind, the creation of the 4th verse takes on a special meaning – expressing a great longing for peace and comfort.[v] Below is an English translation of some of the 4th verse, created by “Silent Night” historian William C. Egan[vi]:

Silent night! Holy night!

Here at last, healing light

From the heavenly kingdom sent,

Abundant grace for our intent.

“All on a Silent Night” by Mayo does not include this 4th verse. However, I strongly believe that the context behind songs stay consistent throughout any revision. For this reason, I felt encouraged to practice the delivery of this variant of “Silent Night” to the best of my ability. Thanks to the technician who came to my house to tune the upright piano in my house the previous week, to the holiday break I received from work, to all the practice with the Music Director of Bethany Presbyterian, I feel like I had the time to deliver a decent performance.

While I sang in front of the congregation on Christmas Eve, I felt my legs shaking from a combination of nerves and the cold air within the church (caused by a heating system which needed to be started earlier in the evening). From my waist up though, I looked calm and I felt composed. I feel grateful that I sang for Bethany Presbyterian, and I hope I get to sing again. The feeling is very humbling.

If you, the reader, ever get the chance to perform any version of “Silent Night”, please remember the historical context of the song and appreciate the meaning behind the verses, especially if you should receive a copy of the version that includes the 4th verse in the lyrics. Perhaps you might know of someone who needs comforting in a time of great uncertainty, whether it is being caused by problem that effects a nation or isolated strictly to an individual. No matter what challenges you may be facing, or those you know are facing, the next time you hear “Silent Night,” I hope you feel some peace and comfort.

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[i] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/text_and_music.asp on December 26th, 2016

[ii] JW Pepper. “All on a Silent Night.” Retrieved from http://www.jwpepper.com/10307377.item#.WGF63fkrLIV on December 26th, 2016

[iii] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/spreading_song.asp on December 26th, 2016

[iv] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[v] Fischer & Schaffernberger. “Stille Nacht Gesellschaft.” Retrieved from http://www.stillenacht.at/en/origin_song.asp on January 16th, 2017

[vi] Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Retrieved form https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/silent_night_holy_night-1.htm on January 16th, 2017

Sean Bones Interview: An artist on an Exploration… and he’s “Here Now”

I love living an hour away from Manhattan; it makes traveling to the city for band performances so easy. On Friday, August 3rd however, I was surprised to learn that a band I wanted to see, Sean Bones, was making a trip out to the suburban town along the north shore of Long Island, Huntington.

He performed an hour-long set on an outdoor stage in Heckscher Park. It was a great evening to enjoy music and an even better time to hang out after the show and personally invite Sean Bones to be the full-length interview feature for the Music Historian Blog, Hear; Don’t Listen.

“A charming take on the 3-minute pop song”

Anyone who listens to Sean’s music will hear a range of styles- from surf rock to folky psychedelia –all under the influence of Jamaican music. He explains, “I started to discover a lot of interesting older reggae. When I discovered rocksteady artists, like John Holt and Alton Ellis, I found that they really had a charming take on the 3-minute pop songs. And that eventually lead to more experimental dub music.”

Since I was unfamiliar with the term “dub” that often shows up in reggae music, I asked Sean to enumerate.

“Dub music began with Jamaican producers removing vocal tracks from singles and experimenting with the instrumentals. Producers like Lee Perry would break song down to just bass and drums, and sometimes add a layer of sound effects and delay.”

For Sean, reggae is a genre in which he can integrate his own musical experience with some of his favorite influences. In the album, RINGS which was released in 2009, he incorporated a Barrington Levy beat in the single “Dancehall.”

“He [Barrington Levy] is a reggae singer, and he was at the forefront when reggae started turning into dancehall,” explains Sean. “One of his albums, Poor Man’s Style inspired the song “Dancehall.”

Sean performed the single “Dancehall” for the Huntington audience at the end of his program. Most of the songs he played though are featured on his second release, Buzzards Boy.

 “I focused on making more of a deliberate statement”

The most obvious musical difference between the albums Buzzards Boys and RINGS is the pace in each song. Sean shares his experience recording these two different records.

“Production on both albums started with live band tracking. On RINGS I spent less time rearranging songs. On Buzzards Boy I took more time and focused on making more of a deliberate statement – something that was specific to a “Sean Bones” sound.

“The second album included a lot more layered recording than the first. I made the first record while I was in another band. When I created the second album, I wasn’t in a band anymore, and I acquired a bit of an audience as a solo artist. So, I focused on making an album that was specifically mine.

“Also, RINGS was very faced-paced, and I wanted to slow down Buzzards Boy.”

In addition, the word “Buzzards” is also “…a reference to the area I’m from – on Buzzards Bay,” adds Sean.

“Tell Me Again” is another song that struck a chord with me. At Heckscher Park, Sean described this track as “… a song from a colder place; no where tropical, more like the North Fork and beyond.” 

Several of Sean’s songs paint pictures of faraway areas and take listeners to places that are far away from the busy city – places of a nautical origin. Sean would say that many of his songs are about “getting away from Brooklyn, and coming to a nice place like this.”

The most enjoyable part of making music for Sean revolves around the ability and opportunity to create music with great musicians and experiment with sound engineering.

“I would like to appropriate some of what I learned from sound engineers and people that I’ve worked with”

“Recording at any time is the high point for me; as well as working with great musicians and in great recording studios.”

Sean is currently preparing to record more music in September and October of this year. He will focus more specifically on music that is fast-paced, like the tracks on his first major release RINGS. He is also preparing for a possible tour at the end of October. In the meantime though, he’s undertaking another exciting project.

“I’m building a studio in my basement, so I can make more of this record on my own” Sean explains, “it’s going to sound more home made.

“I would like to appropriate some of what I learned from engineers and people that I’ve worked with and make something a little cruder or maybe unclean. I’d like to maybe show that when there is a ‘learning-curve’ in making a homemade record, it can sound interesting in its own way.”

This ‘learning-curve’ is something that several artists have experimented with and revisited. I recall the White Stripes 2003 release Elephant where the band specifically played and recorded music with out-of-tune instruments.

Lately, I have also taken up listening to an independent group that wrote an album called Teenage Hate, a compilation of over 20 songs that sound like they were recorded in a small room with a tape recorder. On a more personal note, listening to this album sometimes reminds me of a time when I composed my own songs on guitar and used a hand-held Panasonic tape recorder to put them on a cassette tape. When I did this, I often used what little amplifying equipment I had in arms reach, like a karaoke microphone that I taped to a tripod.

Although I partook in this kind of music making as a high school student and in my early college years, I hadn’t written anything since then. Making music is not just a career; it is part of one’s life. This is especially true for Sean, who from early on was sure that music would always be a part of his life.

Starting as a supporting instrumentalist then developing “the core of the Sean Bones project”

“I started playing music in grade school. My Dad taught me the piano, and then he taught me the guitar at 12. I played with my friends from high school band well into my 20s, and we all eventually relocated to New York City for different reasons. After that, we went our separate avenues, or looked for new musical projects.”

The New Bedford, Massachusetts native had been a supporting instrumentalist up until he made RINGS in 2009. Once it was time to look for a new musical avenue, Sean became interested in developing his own sound and pursuing his own musical projects.

“The Sean Bones project allowed me to pursue a style of music that wasn’t being replicated a million times,” he explained, “and that was the reggae style from the 60s and 70s.”

Very well, Sean admits that reggae music is definitely a part of the popular music landscape, and “it shows up everywhere,” from the Beatles’ music, to songs by Sean Paul. However; several fans of popular reggae music might forget that this genre includes a wider range of artists beyond the Bob Marley phenomena. Reggae and its relatives like dancehall, rock steady and more always leave room for experimentation; and Sean Bones might have found that as he embarked on an exploration for his own sound.

 Wherever his curiosities take him musically, Sean is bound to gain attention from people in the arts and entertainment world. He has already made an appearance on an episode of HBO’s Girls acting in a fictional band named Questionable Goods alongside actor, Chris Abbott. In addition, NME.com recently put up the video for “Here Now” on their site.

As for New York City audiences, they can expect to see Bones perform with his band at The Glasslands Gallery in Brooklyn this August 29th. Tickets are currently on sale here. In the meantime, you can also view the latest video for Sean Bones’s single, also from Buzzards BoyHit Me Up” on Nowness.com.