It was the night before Christmas, 1818, Austria… a young priest named Joseph Mohr had walked nearly two miles in winter cold from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to the neighboring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen.
Mohr was in need of music for his midnight mass which was only hours away and was hoping his friend and choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, could set music to a poem he had written.
As legend goes, Joseph Mohr wrote the poem in 1816, not long after the end of Napoleonic wars (1815) which had kept Europe in turmoil for a dozen years. Mohr had gone for a walk one evening and was inspired by the silent night in a wintry town. After years of war, there was calm. The world was at peace.
Franz Xaver Gruber was able to quickly write a melody for Mohr’s poem and shortly thereafter ~ on the night of December, 24, 1818 ~ Gruber and Mohr gave the first performance of Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night) in front of the altar of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.
Silent Night was written for guitar
Joseph Mohr played guitar, and since a recent flood had damaged the Church’s organ, the musical accompaniment to Silent Night was written for guitar.
The guitar Mohr used that night still exists today and can be seen in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein, Austria.
The most famous of Christmas Carols
Silent Night could have remained a one-hit-wonder if it were not for the organ repairman who brought a copy of the song to his home village (presumable after fixing the organ).
From there, it was picked up by traveling folk singers who performed the song across northern Europe where it continued to be repeated and dispersed to all levels of society.
In 1834 Silent Night was performed for the King of Prussia and in 1839 it debuted outside Trinity Church in New York City. In 1914, during the famous World War One Christmas Eve Truce, soldiers from all sides of the conflict came together to sing Silent Night simultaneously in French, German, and English.
Over the years Silent Night has been translated into more than 300 languages and has evolved from the original composition. The English version we know today was created by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young in the mid 1800s.
Silent Night 2019
I didn’t know the story of Silent Night when I started making the video.
So I was a little stuck by the corollaries of the song played on guitar, emerging from the Chaos Before Christmas, to the original idea and performance.
And the differences.
Unlike Joseph Mohr’s wooden guitar with strings made from animal gut and silk, the guitar used in the video ~ a Blackbird Savoy ~ is made from a composite material (no wood) and outfitted with nylon strings which they did not exist before the 1940s.
And the cellos ~ and contrabass at the end ~ they’re virtual instruments played with a MIDI keyboard.
I am sure some liberties where taken with the melody, too. I didn’t consult any music, just played what was ingrained in my head after many years of hearing the melody.
Even the bass guitar in the beginning of the video ~ which is derivative of “Here Comes Santa Claus” ~ is a bit of a fabrication. It was recorded with a regular electric guitar; I used pitch shifting software to knock it down an octave and some adjustments in software to make is sound more basslike.
And so it is, a little different, 201 years after that first Silent Night performance… but Silent Night, is not a fixed composition, or even just a song. Like the original inspiration, it is a refuge from turmoil, a moment of peace that remains in the composition.
And it belongs to everyone.
I thought this would be easy — simple melody, knock it out on the Strat, add some synth, done!!!
First, Pam’s sensibilities kept me from doing a Jimi Hendrix Star Spangled Banner version of the thing.
Well, I wasn’t actually planning on doing that ~ but ~ I did start out with the Strat and the electric guitar just didn’t sound appropriate to the Silence of Night even in “clean and mellow” mode.
So on to the Nylon Savoy.
That sounded better and kind of cool with some “icy” reverb I added to the track. But my wife’s sensibilities stepped in once again and convinced me that a plain-old, direct-in, no-effects nylon guitar sound was best.
And that’s when the real trouble began…
The nylon Savoy has K&K pickups which are installed on the underside of the soundboard. They give an authentic sound and they’re passive so no batteries or other electronics are needed inside the guitar.
The K&Ks also tend to pick up everything… including bumps to the soundboard and minor, but unwanted, string vibrations when moving from string to string or note to note.
Using a microphone instead of the pickups might have cleaned up the string and soundboard noise, but would have created other issues.
Back to the K&Ks… most of that problem can be remedied with good technique and it’s not an audible problem unless you’re playing single notes that need to be clean and otherwise quiet… like in Silent Night.
I did a bunch of takes and there was always something that shouldn’t be there no matter how careful I was — just lifting a finger off a string carefully can leave an undesired artifact.
I tried a string dampener. That helped, but didn’t totally solve the problem.
Most of the extraneous sounds could be cleaned up in Cubase and probably wouldn’t be noticed when mixed with the cellos, but…
I ended up recording the tune in 9 different segments so there wouldn’t be movements that would cause unwanted sounds.
That worked OK, but it was a lot of extra work and experimentation over a few days.
I did learn a lot.
I’m not a keyboard player or a cello player. So the cello parts ~ played with a MIDI keyboard ~ were done in much the same way as the guitar… in pieces.
This was also a required method to get notes to overlap. The keyboard and the sounds I was using, didn’t sustain. They cut off when the keyboard key was released, so getting a legato feel without gaps in the sound took a few more days of experiments and learning.
The virtual instrument sounds theses days, however, are amazing… a very long way from the first synth/keyboard I bought for Pam (the Kawai K1) in the 1980s.
If you want to check out my first attempt at an all-fake instrument composition with synth, percussion and saxophone, it’s here in the song Gone.
Part of the “secret” to getting the Sax to sound on Gone was playing it with a thin and touch-responsive silicone keyboard.
The Bass Part
Not really a bass, I used my carbon fiber “Blade” electric guitar which is currently outfitted with D’Addario Chrome strings. These are similar to tape wound bass strings and well suited to laying down a bass line with a regular guitar.
Just needed to lower it an octave, which I did with pitch-shifting software.
I use Cubase Pro with a nice collection of plug ins to record, assemble, process, and mix audio projects. And like the virtual instruments, this type of technology has come a long way since my first digital audio experiences with Cakewalk in the 1980s.
I am still shocked that everything I am using these days actually works, and works well (on a fast computer)… not exactly the case in previous years.
You know, I was going to put the band back together.
Then I realized I could replace everyone with software.
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