There was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and then they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.
~ Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, France (Christmas Eve, 1914)
We have a carol sing at our parish every year during the Octave of Christmas. The idea is to promote the celebration of Christmas beyond Christmas Day – “Keeping the Feast” is what we call it. This year, it took place on December 30 – the Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas – and it included a potluck dinner, yuletide cookies and treats, plenty of conversation and laughter, and some hearty vocals.
My wife, Nancy, made many of the arrangements ahead of time and got all the tables in the gym decorated nicely, but when it came to the music, she asked for some help. “I have someone to play the piano,” she told me, “but could you lead the singing?”
I had a brief career as a cantor, so my standing as a mediocre vocal talent is well established. Even so, singing at Mass put me over the hump with regards to stage fright at my parish. “Of course,” I replied. “It would be a pleasure.”
After folks had a chance to tuck into their fried chicken and Santa cupcakes, I moseyed over to the upright piano where Barbara, our evening’s guest pianist, was warming up a bit. “Ready?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “I know almost all the carols in the booklet, and the ones I don’t know I can fake alright.”
I tested the microphone, made a couple announcements, and then launched into “Adestes Fidelis,” followed by “Away in the Manger” – only because it was next in the booklet. To get away from an alphabetical evening, we went next with “Hark the Herald” and “I Saw Three Ships.” After that, Ben, a grade-schooler, sat in on the piano and led us in “Good King Wenceslaus,” and Juan did a terrific rendition of “Feliz Navidad.”
We had a few more requests, and then Nancy gave me the high sign to wind things up, so I announced “Silent Night” – isn’t it always the most appropriate ending carol? We started singing, and I automatically switched from singing in unison to a more-or-less tenor harmonization – which confused Barbara and the other carolers in my immediate vicinity.
As I mentioned, I’m not a trained singer, although I sang a bunch in church and school choirs growing up. These days, however, I can barely pick out the melodies of unfamiliar songs in the hymnal, so harmony parts are generally out of the question. “Silent Night” is a prominent exception for me, and even though I get the tenor and bass lines all mixed up, I find it difficult to stick with the melody line alone – a compulsion on display last Wednesday, and one my kids have annually had to endure this time of year.
I learned the “Silent Night” harmony parts while a student at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. Fairview always had a fantastic music program, and the choir department then was headed up by Ron Revier. Ron’s a showman at heart, and his concerts were always elaborately staged and choreographed. Plus, Mr. Revier and his colleagues were superb musicians and uncompromising directors, so not only were the programs varied and engaging, the performances were consistently sterling.
The Christmas concerts, though, were special favorites every year, and they included both secular and sacred numbers – no apologies! And, traditionally, they concluded with a “Silent Night” sing-along led by all the school choirs spread out in the aisles of the auditorium. I sang in choirs all four years of high school, so I participated in four of those concerts, and Ron’s version of a four-part “Silent Night” became an ingrained part of my Christmas consciousness. The Colorado snow, the anticipation of a holiday break, the genuine good will and cheer engendered by the season, and the satisfaction of together putting on a show so well received – all that is associated with “Silent Night” for me (and countless other Fairview grads I suspect). Combined with even a momentary rumination on the incarnation and the Bethlehem miracle, that marvelous carol richly voiced in four parts routinely brought tears to my eyes.
It still does – every time.
Later on Wednesday night, I plopped down at the computer to check email and the weather forecast. A quick check of Facebook – lo and behold, it was Ron’s birthday that very day! I scanned the long list of well-wishers – some very familiar, but plenty more strangers to me – and their expressions of gratitude, their cherished memories. “You’ve given generations the gift of song,” went one post, “and taught so many that music is indeed the strongest form of magic!”
So true – particularly this time of year. Thanks, Mr. Revier. You taught me much – about music, about striving for excellence, about friendship – and you’ll ever be a part of my Christmas.