THE film Silent Night: A Song For The World (no BBFC certification), narrated by Hugh Bonneville, tells the story (insofar as it goes) of this carol. It is beautifully presented. As the singer-songwriter Sheléa says, the carol draws people into a state of awe and wonder, as it has since it was composed.
In 1816, Austria, having barely survived the Napoleonic Wars, experienced the Year without a Summer. Crop failure led to mass starvation. Near despair, Joseph Mohr, assistant priest in Mariapfarr, scanned the night sky. Stars and planets circling on their way inspired him to write a six-verse poem “Stille Nacht”. Two years, later his friend Franz Gruber set it to music for the midnight mass. It rapidly became popular.
When the Russian Tsar heard the Rainer Siblings sing it, an international concert tour followed. The carol’s American debut was in 1839 at Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York City. Much later, John Freeman Young, by then serving there, published an English translation of three verses. German soldiers brought about a 1914 Christmas truce when they started singing it in their native tongue. Allied forces celebrated with them in no-man’s land. Universal fame was sealed when Bing Crosby recorded it as soundtrack for a Columbian priest’s fund-raising film in 1934.
We sample several of the versions of “Silent night” in 300-plus languages. For singers such as Anggun, a Muslim, the carol links up with all humanity. In a moving analysis of the music, the tenor Rolando Villazón asserts “It lets our soul dance,” soaring before returning us to an earth-based serenity. In Israel, the singer Lina Makhoul says that the carol reminds her that a greater power enfolds us all. We hear Kelly Clarkson singing less familiar words from William C. Egan’s translation of Mohr’s other three verses. Another rendition, departing from the text, riffs into a Gospel-music plea for heavenly peace.
The film is by no means just a series of talking-singing heads. There are dramatic enactments of Mohr and Gruber at work and Field Marshal Lord Haig recounting the ineffable power of the carol. Recalling his decision never to allow a repeat of soldiers laying down arms on subsequent First World War Christmases, he says: “It’s no good for fighting morale to see your enemy as human.” There’s a hint of regret attached to this remark, implying that the carol could have stopped further carnage.
The scene serves to draw attention to something that the film lacks, i.e. any serious examination of the carol’s words. Is there an irony intended in lines such as “All is calm, all is bright”? Unlike the celestial glory that Mohr contemplates, here on earth that is patently not the case. We could have done with a reference to something like Simon and Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News”, in which its devastating reportage is broadcast while they sing the carol. The film’s strength, however, lies in offering a vision of how the world could be different if only we hushed our noise (as Pope Francis is quoted as wishing) to hear the angels sing.
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