The Story of Silent Night
Silent Night Memorial Chapel, Oberndorf, Austria. Wikipedia
The fact that the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf has itself been replaced by a Silent Night Memorial Chapel seems, then, unintentionally ironic.
A more striking memorial to the carol, perhaps, is Alfred Schnittke’s version for violin and piano from 1978. Here, a solo violin plays an ascetic version of the tune punctuated by “wrong” notes set against a quiet, but menacing peal from the piano. While it might at first seem an irreverent, even disrespectful, gesture, it soon becomes apparent that the carol is in fact being presented to us as a ruin.
The particular time and place that produced “Silent Night”, along with its cultural and theological norms, Schnittke seems to say, is now lost to us. This is what we should expect. The past, after all, is a foreign country, they indeed do things differently there. To pretend otherwise is to risk turning the carol into kitsch.
Nevertheless, the longings it expresses do retain contemporary currency, and perhaps this is the ultimate reason for the longevity of “Silent Night”. Christian or not, we all wish for moments of tranquillity, and we all sense in the birth of a child possibilities for a better future. For these reasons, I suspect this particular carol will continue to be heard over the din of our own Christmas seasons for many a year yet.
Featured image: Country Church on Christmas Day ( public domain )