SILENT NIGHTS are dark nights, lighted only by far stars. In the still winter, no leaves are left to blow, and lakes are locked in ice. I remember Christmas Eve as always clear; if ever a light snow did fall, there were no howling gales, no cars skidding on country roads, no rattle of sleet or creaking of branches in the woods.
After supper, after church, after the wild festivity of eggnog, stollen, gifts, the house fell silent, and it was then the carolers would come -- or so I like to remember, memory a swirl of solvent across a dusty exactitude.
Crescent of carolers
We would watch the fire die, the tree glowing behind us, and like a cascade of wind chimes, the notes of a carol would fill the air. Years later, I would tell my children of the crescent of carolers in the cold, those wanderers who pass like shadows across the landscape, carrying bright bits of language wrapped in dark bundles of song. Like tinsel and fruitcake, the words were seasonal -- tinkle, twinkle, merry, joyous, gay -- rare sweets in an urban vocabulary often tasteless and gray.
Cities are rarely silent, even under new-fallen snow. Instead, one listens in the tumult for sounds that lighten, warm, uplift. Silver bells. Chestnuts roasting. Hosanna. Hallelujah. Fum, fum, fum. In churches, auditoriums, concert halls, cathedrals, one can hear throughout December the joyful music of the choral arts.
The earliest printed edition of carols was issued by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521; in 1720 appeared a collection of 34 French "noels." Each cantata, each "gloria," each carol has its own history, some stories familiar, some obscure. We know Martin Luther wrote the words for "Away in a Manger," Franz Gruber the melody for "Silent Night;" the Welsh origins of "Deck the Halls" are gone. Around the table this holiday season, my family tells for only the seventh time the story we call "Carrie's Carol," the tale of a fledgling song that each winter travels farther than we know.
"We could use a new Christmas carol!" burst out Garrison Keillor, launching an impromptu contest in a 1989 broadcast of his American Radio Company of the Air. Too young, at 14, to know how vast is our canon of carols, our child, home alone, sat down at our old upright piano to compose for the Keillor cause. Off went her song, "The Carolers at My Door," to that tall teller of tales who, on Saturday nights, sends off across plains and prairies sagas, spoofs, song.
A song reaches out
Her song! The next Saturday, the Gregg Smith Singers gave voice to "Carolers," and each season since, the carol has been performed -- in Baltimore, Norfolk, Cleveland, Cambridge, in California, Minnesota, Colorado, in Guadalajara, Mexico. It was sung this past week in the Basilica of the Assumption by the Baltimore Choral Arts, under the direction of Tom Hall; their concert will be televised on Christmas Day; the song is on their Christmas CD.
Music seems a miracle to me, though miracles play oddly in a post-modern world. Were miracle outmoded as explanation for creation, as a way to account for those things that last, miracle might still suffice. In earlier centuries, when carolers vanished, music lived on in a house -- in the rhythmic slap of hands kneading bread, in the ticking and chiming of clocks, in hums, sizzles, whirs and whistles, in the wind sighing through chinks in the roof. As counterpoint, the murmur of song, a deep river, miraculously ran in the heart.
All year, we endure the clamor of urban living, uproar that pounds like the sound of rain, the pelting drops, the sheets, the deafening floods that batter and clatter, drowning silence out. During the Advent season, music moves across the face of the earth like clouds, releasing sounds that fall as harmoniously as snowflakes.
And music, like snowfall, is sound that turns to sight. The choral arts are created by choral artists, by craft assembled. They are visionaries, those familiar folk who travel from place to place, painting with wondrous tones the dark canvas of a silent night.
jTC Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College. Baltimore Choral Arts' Christmas concert will be televised on Channel 2 tomorrow, Christmas morning, at 9 a.m.
Pub Date: 12/24/96