The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar, December 24: Silent Night
When I was growing up, we only went to church a handful of times; each of these times was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
My father saw it as an interruption of an evening at home, but my mother used to like to go to Lessons and Carols and sing with the community. For my own part, I could take it or leave it. That part of Christmas Eves the happened after dinner was hard for me as a kid. Because it was late, I wasn’t allowed to play music; because it was pre-cable TV, nothing watchable was on television. I was too excited about the morning to sit still and read. I agreed with my dad that Midnight Mass was unbelievably dull, but my thinking was you might as well be bored out on an evening trip then bored sitting at home. There was one part of the evening I looked forward to, though. It was when everyone sang Silent Night.
My family is a little weird, in that we treated music like other families treated sports. Sadly (and in retrospect, embarrassingly) this comparison extended to the gender bias of the time. The boys in my family studied music at a very early age and continued to do so until they left home as young men. This practice has gone back generations, and as a result we have a number of ancestors and far flung relatives that have played professionally at one time or another. As my father used to say, the boys always had a choice: If we liked studying music, the family would encourage us — if we hated studying music, the family would force us. It was really our choice. The women of the family, though, were a different matter. While not formally excluded, they were never encouraged or forced and as a result I can’t think of a woman in my family that ever studied music.
So my mother couldn’t really read music, and this made Lessons and Carols something of a pantomime for her. Most of the carols sung before formal service were those songs that had never really caught on with the public. They had stodgy and unwieldy names, like “The Lord Mightily Cometh To Lead His Glorious Flock,” and their melodies defied popular music conventions. My father and I could read music well enough to get along, but my sister and mother couldn’t. This was no big deal for my sister, who didn’t necessarily want to sing anyway, but my mom would always gamely try in a soft voice no one could hear. This would go on until the last song in Lessons and Carols, which was always Silent Night. She knew that one, and when we got there she would belt it out louder than anyone in the church.
Unfortunately, my mother was a terrible singer. And Silent Night is one of those numbers like The Star Spangled Banner, in that it has a range that makes it deceptively difficult to sing well. Neither my sister, my father or I could sing it with any degree of accuracy, but the sounds that came out of my mother were surreal. Imagine a sack of cats in a drier channeling Yoko One, and it would still have been closer to music than my mother’s unbelievably loud rendition of Silent Night.
My sister and I loved it. It was the highlight of our Christmas Eve, really: My mother shrieking out a song she loved with a degree of sheer, unadulterated passion that would have made Pavarotti green with envy; the heads of adults rows away start to glance around with curious frowns on their faces; my sister and I with tears rolling down our faces, we were laughing so hard. At the end of the song, the standing congregation would sit down in silence, and our mother would look at us with a confident smile and give a nod, as if to say, “And that’s how you do that.”
That will always be my favorite rendition of Silent Night: my mother’s. In ways I can’t even explain, it captures more perfectly everything I love about this season.
Sadly, I don’t have a recording of it to share. So I give you my second favorite, by the late Dave Brubeck.
Happy Holidays, Ordinary Times.
Click here to see all selections for The Virtual Musical Advent Calendar.