As Sung by Paul Robeson and Archie Roach
BY JOHNNY MILNER
Coinciding with our NFSA Christmas collection, we focus on one of the most enduring and loved carols of all time, 'Silent Night'. This article traces the origins of the song, examines its musical components and profiles two key renditions from our collection: Archie Roach's 2008 recording and Paul Robeson's performance in front of schoolchildren in 1960.
WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
'Stille Nacht' (or 'Silent Night' in English) was first performed by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber on Christmas Eve 1818 in Salzburg, Austria. Mohr, a Catholic priest, had penned the poem two years prior, while Gruber, a schoolteacher and musician, composed the music at Mohr’s request. This serendipitous collaboration produced what has come to be one of the world's most recognised songs – manifesting in many iterations and arrangements.
Bing Crosby's version of 'Silent Night', for instance, is one of the highest-selling singles of all time, having sold more than 30 million physical copies. The carol has also been translated into hundreds of languages, including Indigenous Australian languages. Dr G Yunupingu and Delta Goodrum performed it at the Opera House in 2016. In addition, it was listed by the UNESCO Commission in 2011 as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Austria.
A message of peace
'Silent Night' was written in a time of relative peace, following the horror of the Napoleonic wars and the annexation of Salzburg from Bavaria. Historical accounts of the song's genesis explain that Mohr had previously served in the wars and that this period of calm was an influencing factor in the composition of the text.
The carol's association with peace is also evidenced in the 1914 Christmas truce during the First World War – a series of widespread unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front. In gestures evoking the season of goodwill, troops from both sides jointly sang 'Silent Night' – in German and English. As legend has it, they then met in the no man's land beyond their trenches, exchanging gifts and stories and playing football.
This clip featuring the great African American singer Paul Robeson (1898–1976), conveys well the song’s pacifist message:
Robeson, a key figure in the American civil rights movement, was renowned for his bass-baritone voice and was a strong believer in the healing power of music.
Following this haunting performance, Robeson addresses a message to schoolchildren about peace on earth.
Another prominent example featuring in our collection is by Archie Roach. As explained in our Australian Christmas Music – Advent Calendar collection, Roach deviates slightly from the original melody but the country music-style arrangement complements his powerful and emotive voice:
With a rhythm section of acoustic and slide guitars, the drum track falls just behind the beat and delivers a beautiful, laid-back interpretation of this familiar carol.
Roach's voice is proudly mixed in front of the backing track and the reverence in his performance is striking. Roach, like Robeson - a believer in the healing power of music, sings in a voice that seems to be forged out of both sadness and strength.
Timeless and Universal
'Silent Night' could belong to any time or any place – it could be a Rod Stewart number, an Elvis track or even a spiritual piece. For many years it was variously falsely credited to Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn!
Its timeless and universal qualities perhaps relate to what musicologist Peter Tregear (speaking on ABC Radio National's The Music Show) has described as 'a brilliant concision of textual and musical material'.
Beginning with a description ('Silent night, holy night) and ending with an exclamation ('Sleep in heavenly peace!'), the song's verses conjure imagery and themes that resonate with the Nativity story, central to Christmas Day. They perfectly and concisely encapsulate the basic essence of Christian theology – the miracle of incarnation ('Jesus Lord, at Thy birth') and the hope of Salvation ('Christ the Saviour is born').
By achieving all this in just a few short, efficient sentences, the song conveys all the better the power of the Christian message.
The music enhances the power. It follows a somewhat universal, pentatonic structure and is set in compound time (where each beat is broken into three-part rhythms). This musical assemblage – assisting to convey a kind of pastoral setting with an imaginative lullaby space for baby and crib – strikingly matches the rhetoric of the song's words.
In a year in which historic bushfires have been followed by a life-changing pandemic, the carol will surely ring loud this festive season – its tranquillity, hope and tenderly expressed Christmas sentiment contrasting with the tumult of 2020. There may even be new renditions and interpretations, bringing renewed interest in the song and perhaps influencing the way it is experienced in years to come.
Main image: Hungarian actress Käthe von Nagy (1904–1973) with Christmas tree, 1933. From the Taussig film stills collection. NFSA: 1083086