“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

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Passion, Practice and Performance: Tender Glue, Alyson Greenfield, and Myself

My social calendar has been quite full over the last two weekends. These social gatherings involved seeing old friends and new colleagues performing music in New York City. Last Saturday, December 12th, I went to the Rock Shop in Brooklyn to see Alyson Greenfield perform with a drummer she had been collaborating with, Sanal. Then I went to the Lower East side later that night to see my work colleague play guitar in a project called, Tender Glue.

The last time Alyson and I both saw each other, was in mid-October at CMJ. Sadly, I missed her show because I stayed too late at work. The next time Alyson and I met, we were both walking towards the Rock Shop in Brooklyn. She was wearing a cozy and fashionable white wool coat peppered with little nuances of black thread. Alyson also wore a pink backpack that I believe she purchased at American Apparel. Her hair was tied up in a ballet bun, and her lips sported a ruby red shade of lipstick. To accompany the dramatic facial appearance, Alyson wore sheer black stockings on her legs and flat-heeled leather boots that came mid-way between her ankles and her calves.

At the Rock Shop, friends of Alyson’s were waiting in the backstage/VIP area – a patio covered by a plastic canopy. When we got there, we met Kristin Flammio, a good friend of Sanal’s, known for her work with Brooklyn based band Forts. Also, I had a chance to meet and talk with Sanal.

Sanal moved to the U.S. from Kalmyk Republic, Russia – closest connection to Kazakhstan in the area of Caspian Sea, which belongs to indigenous people of Mongolian ethnicity, named Kalmyks. He comes from a musical family and learned to play drums from when he was six years old. During our chat, he told me how much he admires Alyson’s professionalism. Sanal said that any musical idea Alyson has, she records it, and then plays it to him and says “This is what I want.” Sanal then plays a rhythm on his drum set. Some of the song Alyson prefers having an “orchestra” or ambient atmosphere with what I guess would be toms, padded mallets and other percussion instruments. When he and Alyson decide on a rhythm, they play it together three or four times during their rehearsal.

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According to Sanal, Alyson practices her parts individually before she comes to rehearsal. That helps contain the rehearsal time to an hour. Making a living as a musician in New York City is time- and cost-consuming. Aside from the fact that having a day job is important to help musicians sustain themselves and focus on their craft; renting a place to practice with your band requires an adherence to the time restrictions of that space. Although my experience is nowhere near up to par with Alyson’s or Sanal’s, I remember rehearsing with the S.U. Klezmer Ensemble, on a weekly basis, and being conscientious of the fact that our rehearsal times were only one hour in length.

Returning to Sanal’s story, he explains, “Especially for singers, it is important they perform their parts individually because they have certain notes they must hit a certain way, at various moments in the song.” He also says that singers who don’t practice their parts before a rehearsal can spend copious amounts of time repeating specific sections, and this can overrun the rehearsal time.

After about thirty minutes, of talking, and enjoying a beer and a sandwich in the backstage area, Alyson and Sanal were ready to perform. Alyson’s stage outfit included a black string tank top, black denim shorts and those stockings and boots I had told you about earlier. At one point during her performance, she said, I was going for a Black Swan look. (She was referring to the way one of the main characters from the 2010 film, Black Swan, dressed). Sanal wore a black t-shirt that simulated a black tux.

Alyson and Sanal both displayed a love for music itself, and a desire to share it with their audience. Although the show they put on was free and started at 5 pm on a Saturday evening, the turnout of the crowd was great – about 30 people came to watch. Alyson and Sanal both performed two new songs together for the first time. I did record this clip of an acapella song Alyson performed. (the song she performed with a loop pedal. The one with a floor tom song, she performed with me also playing drums – Sanal).

After the show, Alyson, Sanal, and I, took a tour around The Rock Shop. We had a chance to see the merchandise displayed by various Brooklyn-based artisan businesses. This slideshow includes all we saw.

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Later that night, at around 7:00 pm, I left the Rock Shop and went to Leftfield on the Lower East Side. There, I met my work colleague, Janise, who was going to play guitar, as a temporary participant in Tom Gluewicki’s project, Tender Glue. According to the project’s Facebook Fan Page, Tender Glue is “Not a person. Not a band. It is music made by an urge to create (Tender Glue, Facebook, 2015).” Tom explains that Tender Glue is only him for now (“About| Tender Glue,” n.d.).

Tender Glue’s music has a structure that, pays ode to the psychedelic and folk rock of the ‘60’s. Then, somewhere within the first song, where the listener expects to hear a melodic guitar solo that is easy to sing back, the lead guitar instead delivers a series chords stretched across the measures as whole notes, creating an ambiance and ultimately, reminding listeners that these songs have been written in modern times. In another song, on which Tom played acoustic guitar, Janise played a solo that bounced between the low registers of the ‘e’ and the ‘a’ strings, and then the ‘b’ and the second ‘e’ strings on her Strat. The song was – for the most part – composed in a major key, with an upbeat tempo, and a steady rhythm.

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Tom, on rhythm guitar, played more major and minor chords, than the power and bar chords we are used to seeing from the most famous rock guitarists we can identify. In one song, Tom’s harmony involves a progression between ‘C’ major, ‘G’ major and ‘A’ minor. As for his vocal performance, one might say that that Tom’s voice floats in the register of a tenor. Further, Tom’s vocals are accentuated by the guitar pedals and the effects of the microphone. These effects help simulate distance as if the singer’s voice echoes. Another memorable effect made by the technology was at a specific time in the performance where Tom played his harmonica, touching it on the surface of the microphone in front of him, which produced a sound that felt like a cross between a fog horn and the horn of a small train.

If you would like to listen to any track by Tender Glue online, you can download songs for free on Bandcamp. All of Tender Glue’s music, lyrics, and the additional effects are the idea of Tom Gluewicki (J. Lazarte, personal communication, December 28, 2015). During the performance, I met one of Janise’s friends; he works in finance, and he also plays drums within various bands around New York City. Aside from telling me about his day-to-day, he also told me about his admiration for Janise’s drive to perform music.

On the topic of performing, I wanted to bring up another interesting conversation I had with Sanal. He and I had spoken about the difference between musicians who have a passion for music and those who are merely skilled. He used the example within the film Black Swan, in which ballerina Nina (played by Natalie Portman), the main character, has mastered the skills to dance the parts of both the white swan and the black swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, she does not perform with as much soul as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis). This realization drives Nina mad, and eventually, results in her own physical and mental demise. Sanal’s finishing point to that conversation was that those musicians who have a passion for playing music and practice, are happier than those musicians who have the skills, practice, but lack passion.

Fast-forward to last Saturday, December 19th. That Saturday, I did not travel to the city for concerts. Instead, I invited someone I have been dating for a few weeks now to come over. I told him previously that I had played piano throughout my undergraduate studies. He suggested that maybe one day, I would play for him. Therefore, I decided to take Saturday afternoon to practice a few pieces on my Baldwin Upright Piano. A few pieces I had come to love playing, all by Erik Satie, included “First Gymnopedie”; “First Gnossienne”; and “Third Gymnopedie.”

That afternoon, I practiced these three short pieces, and while I still have the skill, I am a stickler for playing everything perfectly, much like the ballerina Nina was when she danced. However, I then recalled what Sanal talked to me about, and I asked myself, what was more important, to play each of the notes perfectly, or to play with passion? I decided on the latter. The most important part of my performance that night – if it were to happen – was to play a piece through. If I were to make mistakes, I would have to disguise them like they were intentional.

That night, when my date came over and asked me to play something, I chose the “First Gymnopedie.” I stumbled a few times in my performance, but my mistakes were not very noticeable. When it came time to play the “First Gnossienne,” my stumbles were far more noticeable, yet I felt like I played that one with far more passion than I did the “First Gymnopedie.” Regardless, though, when I played that final F-minor chord on the “First Gnossienne,” I looked back at my date who was watching me from the living room, and he just smiled.

Works Cited

J Lazarte. (n.d.). About| Tender Glue [website]. Retrieved from http://tenderglue.com/about/

Tender Glue (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved December 20, 2015, from https://www.facebook.com/TenderGlue/info/