For me, the quintessential sound of Sunday morning is, somewhat surprisingly, not the piano nor the organ nor voices singing hymns. The sound that means Sunday to me is, and always will be, the sound of church bells.
Where I grew up in rural West Michigan, even the smallest church (and most were very small) had a bell and rang it regularly before worship. As a little girl, allowed occasionally to “help” on the bell rope, I felt Sunday come alive with each pull and peal. As a young church organist, I waited to start the prelude until the exact moment the bell’s voice faded into silence.
Time was, everyone could tell from a distance which church was ringing its bell because bells, like people, have unique voices. Now many churches don’t have bells at all, or have stopped using them regularly. And now that I hear church bells ring out relatively seldom, I cherish their ancient sound more than ever.
“Ancient” is definitely the right word: the earliest bells date back 5000 years. Christian churches introduced bells (the very first instruments deemed appropriate for worship) between 400 and 700 AD. By the Middle Ages, church bells were everywhere. Over centuries, the bells called people to worship, marked moments set aside for prayer, mourned the passing of loved ones, exulted at joyous occasions, even called for help in times of crisis like fire or storms.
There’s something primevally satisfying about the sound of bells, something that reaches a place in us no words can reach. Why else, in our electronic global society, do people the world over still choose 5000-year-old technology to produce just the right sounds to herald the most joyful occasions? And to mark those times of ultimate gravity when words cannot convey the reverence, solemnity, or sorrow we feel? Think back to the tolling of bells by area churches exactly one week after the shooting began at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. I doubt there’s any other sound on earth, save the crying of an abandoned child, that can move people quite like the voice of a bell.
Historically, bell makers inscribed their bells with the year of casting, the maker’s name or mark, and, often, a prayer or a statement in Latin or English on behalf of the bell itself. English bell founders were particularly devoted to this practice. In Leicestershire, England, a bell of 1675, at St. Edward King & Martyr Church in Castle Donington, reads: I will praise Thee O God with all mi hart. In the same county, at All Saints Church in Narborough, a 1672 bell says: I swetely toleing men do call to taste on the meat that feeds the soule.
Meanwhile, St. Nicolas Church in Frolesworth has a 1749 bell inscribed: Celorum Christe placeat tibi Rex sonus iste (Christ, the King of Heaven, be pleased with this sound). At the Abbey Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Sherborn, Dorset, a 17th-century bell used exclusively to sound fire alarms proclaims: Lord quench this furious flame, Arise, run help put out the same! And another bell, this one from the 18th century, announces proudly, My voice is sweet, my face is shining.
My favorite inscription of all appears on a bell cast in 1621 at St. Andrew’s Church, Hambleton: Non clamor sed amor cantat in aure Dei (Not noise but love sings in the ear of God).
Reading these old inscriptions, I can’t help but wonder … if I were a bell, what would my inscription say? What intentions did my Maker write on my being? On my heart?
Just some things to think about, the next time a church bell rings – or sooner.
I don’t remember ever hearing my maternal grandparents sing, and neither of them played a musical instrument. But they both loved music and their influence had everything to do with me becoming a musician. It started long before I was born, with a decision that takes my breath away when I consider how radically ambitious it was at the time.
It was the early 1930s, the height of the Great Depression, and Grandpa and Grandma decided their 6-year-old daughter (who would grow up to be my mom – and my first music teacher) should have music lessons. I have no idea how they managed it. Like millions of other early-20th-century immigrants, they’d come to this country with nothing but determination and a willingness to work hard. How they eked out money for music lessons, I’ll never know. But I do know how they came up with Mom’s first instrument. They bought it from the rag-and-bone man, one of the many peddlers who roamed Chicago’s streets and alleys scavenging cast-offs and reselling them. One day his cart yielded up a treasure: a three-quarter-size violin.
Years later, Mom made us laugh by telling how all the neighbor kids stood on the sidewalk that first summer yelling, “Squeeeeeak, squaaaaawk! Squeeeeeak, squaaaaawk!” while she practiced. She outlasted the teasing and when she outgrew the little violin, Grandpa and Grandma somehow produced a full-size instrument for her, along with more lessons.
In fact, neither of those violins would have been Mom’s first choice. “I really wanted to learn the piano,” she said. “But the violin was what I had.”
Eventually, she did get her chance at the piano. I don’t know how Grandpa and Grandma managed those lessons, either, or where the piano came from, but Mom wasted no time learning to play it. Some years later, she would teach her children to play the piano. And Grandpa and Grandma would always be a reliably proud audience for their musical performances.
One year, my sister Denise and I learned “Silent Night” in German. On Christmas Eve, I played while the two of us sang and Grandma and Grandpa beamed. I still have the sheet music, fastened inside the cover of an old piano book with an excess of tape that seemed to me, at age 8, just the right amount. The tape is yellow and brittle now but still holding on. I still have Mom’s violins, too.
My grandparents and my parents, like everyone’s, were far from perfect people. But they gave the gifts they could and made the best of the gifts they were given. And quite possibly, that’s the best music lesson I ever could have had.
In all my years as a church musician, I’ve played this simple Christmas carol at least a hundred times, and heard it many times more. Nobody seems to tire of it – in fact, people love “Silent Night” like no other carol. Why? After all these years, I still can’t quite figure it out.
Musically, “Silent Night” is no big deal: just a simple melody in triple meter, with selected melodic lines repeated for emphasis. It’s usually harmonized with just four chords (a novice guitarist can get away with just three). As for the words, they paint a pretty picture but — having been in a barn and having been through childbirth (though not simultaneously) — I seriously doubt that first Christmas was truly silent.
Yet in the nearly 200 years since “Silent Night” was born, people haven’t just revered it, they’ve made its creation the stuff of legends. The story about the mice chewing a hole in the bellows of the organ in St. Nicholas Church at Oberndorf, Austria, which made the organ unplayable and prompted the pastor to ask the choir director to quickly compose carol he could accompany on guitar on Christmas Eve? The mice-and-bellows part is almost certainly not true: there’s no record of the church’s organ not working. According to “Silent Night” experts (yes, some people actually specialize in this carol), the most likely scenario is that Father Joseph Mohr, who liked to play the guitar, asked choir director Franz Gruber to set to music a Christmas poem Fr. Mohr had written two years before.
You also may have heard that after the St. Nicholas Church congregation premiered “Silent Night “in 1818, the carol vanished into obscurity for decades, until an organ repairman accidentally discovered the manuscript, took it away with him, and passed it on to traveling folk singers, who eventually found the song was a crowd-pleaser.
In truth, though the original 1818 manuscript of “Silent Night” has been lost, an arrangement in Fr. Mohr’s own hand does exist, dated 1820, not so long after the carol was first sung (not by St. Nicholas’s congregation, incidentally, but by Fr. Mohr and Gruber in two-part harmony on the verses, with the choir joining in four-part harmony on the refrain). An organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, did obtain a copy of the song and pass it on to folk singers, who performed it throughout Germany in the mid-19th century (and even brought it to America in 1839). Over the years, the singers took some liberties with the carol — altering words, changing a few notes, singing it at lullaby speed rather than the original sprightly dance tempo — and gradually turned it into the carol we know today.
Interesting facts, but they don’t necessarily explain what it is about “Silent Night” that has compelled people not just to sing it but to love it so. To treasure it, translate it into more than 140 languages, sing it tirelessly year after year. And why wrap its creation in fanciful stories that have become as beloved as the carol itself?
I suppose that since “Silent Night” is about the greatest and most wonderful mystery ever, God’s incarnation in human form, it seems like the song itself should have something legendary and mysterious about its creation. But for me, the really astonishing thing about “Silent Night” is that it was born of such ordinary people in such ordinary circumstances: a guitar-loving priest, a helpful organist; just two ordinary men at a small parish church. No big deal. Which to me seems exactly the big deal about “Silent Night”: how God can take the most ordinary among us and through our hands and hearts deliver something deeply transforming. Something so powerful it can prompt spontaneous ceasefires on World War I battlefields. Something like a simple song that can awe, comfort, captivate, and bring to tears more millions of people than can be counted. That can make “heavenly peace” such a wondrous place, we all want to sleep there.
Which is to say, it’s okay with me that there were no hungry mice, no broken organ, no descent into obscurity for this simplest of songs. I’m good with “Silent Night” being just an ordinary miracle.