“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.

_____________________________________________________

[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

Advertisements

A Pop Album Inspired by the Evolution of the Classical Piano: Interview with Janna Pelle, Part 2

I return to my interview session with Janna Pelle, which took place on the first Thursday of November, at the Bosie Tea Parlor in the West Village. As Janna received her order of Mau Feng tea, I asked her about the challenges and rewards she experiences in her career as a musician. She responds:

Janna Pelle_Pianos_Key Change launch_11/10/2014 “Other than making money, I think the challenge is to be able to stay true to yourself. When you decide you want to do music professionally, you don’t know exactly what that would mean for you, or what you like about music. Will it give you the same sense of fulfillment that you would get in a job? Are you up for it? Do you want to do music your whole life? You need to enter with a very open mind. If you don’t do a certain thing, realize it does not mean you are selling yourself short, or failing. It means you are learning how to make yourself happy, how to support yourself, and balance all of these different things going on around music – even your lifestyle or sleep schedule. That’s the challenge, accepting what being a musician means to you.”

“It’s like taking care of a baby,” I commented.

“It is a baby!” Janna positively exclaims. “It’s like your creative brain child. And as a musician, you are always in a state of flux. I’ve been playing keyboards for other bands, making posters for them, and more. It goes back to the feeling like I am providing a service to people. That’s going to make me happy. I would prefer to do something that makes me passionate.

“I don’t know what type of audience I will reach at any time, but I know that when I perform for Beatles Fest, my own shows or a cover set, I can feel good about myself. I completed work for somebody, they appreciate the fact that I am playing their music, and that’s my job.”

The subject of audience reminded me of Janna’s plan for Key Change, the album which received the dedicated concert from earlier this week. The concept for this record involves following the chronological history of the keyboard’s evolution from harpsichord to synthesizer. Further the music in this record mixes classical with pop, and offers an ode to the versatility of the piano and all the changes it underwent throughout history to make it better.

“The evolution is really interesting,” begins Janna. “There is no other keyboard instrument like the modern piano. You can do everything with it; play delicately, legato, staccato, very high, very low, loud, or soft.

“The earlier keyboard instruments were all imperfect in some way. The clavichord was perceived as a passive instrument. Then, the harpsichord was built for really small rooms – it was the elitist’s instrument present at dinner parties for all the kings, queens and important politicians. Organs, which actually came before these instruments, were placed in churches with high ceilings and started to be adapted for concerts. Organs were, however, huge and importable. People couldn’t do anything with them, including playing very short notes as the sounds linger in the pipes for a long time. The modern day piano blends portability, mobility, long notes, short notes, and all the qualities of the earlier keyboards together. You can play harpsichord music on the piano, and anything.

“Part of the reason I love the piano is so much is because it is a solo instrument. When I came to New York, I said to myself, I don’t have all of these other instruments [with me]. With the piano, I am able to write for myself, sing and accompany myself. I also like how it is a percussion instrument. I love playing heavily on the keys and not worrying about anything really. It is not hard to produce a note, compared to the violin and other instruments, like woodwinds.”

As Janna worked on the album, she had the opportunity to work with a musician from Juilliard on one of her songs. This made her think about marketing to an audience of classical musicians, conservatory musicians, or dormant musicians. Janna explains:

“I am not sure what your reason for being dormant is,” Janna says, “but the people I know who say they’re a dormant musician claim it’s because of time consumption. I think many of these dormant musicians have not listened to anything other than the pieces they played growing up. I think they will find this album interesting and fresh. And there are a lot of little tasteful musical moments that music nerds will be able to appreciate.”

One song from Key Change my audience in New York City will definitely appreciate is “City Life,” in which Janna sings … So, this is city life/ for better for worse/ even on a shitty day/ I still live in the greatest place on Earth. I am sure anybody who has taken on the city at one point in their lives will relate to some of the lyrics in this song. If you live in New York, enough said.

I wondered about the moment Janna had – and I ask this of all my musical subjects – when she decided to become a musician. She answers:

“That moment is still evolving. When I graduated, I wanted to try being a musician though I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that for a fact from the time I left school, moved back to Miami (the singer’s home town) for two months, and then came here. I could have gone right into advertising, there is an advertising school in New York. I thought about going to Spain for a little while to teach English. I earned a minor in ESL, and linguistics, and that always interested me. Yet, I felt I could do that at any age. It was mainly just feeling like it was my time to do this. I’m as young as I am ever going to be today, so it’s time to do it.”

Wherever Janna goes with her career and however long she decides to stay in music is up to her, and her future looks bright. Aside from her immediate confidence, charm and her passion for songwriting and performing, Janna has support from many different communities – her peers, patients and their families battling a serious illness, the artists who join her during a performance, the lovers of music she wins over with her songs, and the business partners who help her along the way.