Lullaby from a Cattle Shed

Lullaby from a Cattle Shed

Hymn #204 — “Silent Night”

Text: Joseph Mohr (1792-1848);
translated by John F. Young (1820-1885)
Music: Franz Gruber (1787-1863)

Lullaby from a Cattle Shed.jpg

One of my favorite scenes in Disney’s original “101 Dalmatians” is when the 99 puppies hid out at a dairy farm.

The cows are very motherly and accepting, happy to help a bunch of poor little starving puppies.

As one particular puppy clamps down a little too hard, one of the maternal cows says with a croon and a nurturing smile, “The little daaarrrrlings….”

For some reason I think of these care-taking cows when I hear “Silent Night.” I imagine a herd of Anderson Sisters in the Bethlehem stable soothing the baby Jesus.

Of course this is a special hymn/carol because we’re singing the baby Jesus to sleep. There’s an automatic aura of holiness and wonder built in.

Franz Gruber was wise to keep the music very simple. There are only 3 chords, the 1, the 4 and the 5. They rock gently back and forth in a triple meter, like most lullabies.

To keep the baby from waking, the register is mostly low. There are a few more expressive higher notes and a rather high E-flat at the climax. But it’s sung in a light head voice rather than a rousing roar. And it gives us the chance to express our emotion at the beautiful scene.

It is perhaps the most beloved Christmas hymn/carol of all time and will undoubtedly remain in the new version of the hymnal.

That’s all for today. Have a good one!


Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”

by Jason Gunnell, Organist

Much can and has been written about this beloved carol and its origins as an impromptu carol written by an Austrian parish priest and organist on Christmas Eve when the organ broke down. On December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr wrote a six stanza poem that he brought to his organist, Franz Gruber, and together they worked a tune to sing the poem and sang it at the evening service, with the choir joining in on the last two lines.

The carol was instantly famous and spread far and wide by traveling musicians throughout Europe and the United States. The most commonly used English translation is by John Freeman Young, and the most commonly verses used are the first, sixth, and second verses of the original.

It is no wonder this sacred hymn is beloved by almost all of Christendom. It wonderfully captures the reverence of thinking of that sacred night when the Savior of Heavenly Father’s children was born. For me, nothing captures the beauty of the text and tune better than two arrangements by Douglas E. Bush that I use religiously every Christmas. The first is a simple arrangement for organ that works so beautifully as an introduction to the hymn. The second is his setting for choir that includes hauntingly beautiful descants for the second and third verses and a tremendous reharmonization for the organ to play on the third verse. This link is the only place I could find a recording of this sacred hymn and is representative of the great work that Doug Bush did in his stake and for so many. I have a great deal of love and appreciation for Doug Bush, as he is one of the primary figures responsible for the path in music and the organ I have taken.

The the hymn is contemplative and serene in nature, it can be taken much too slowly. I find that I take it somewhere in the vicinity of 92-98 beats per minute. This is still slow enough to keep the quiet reverence of the piece, but not so slow that it suffers from dragging. I would use a very soft registration, only employing enough of the organ to support the congregation in singing.

Registration Starting Point:
Great: Flute 8’
Swell: Principal 8, Flute 8’, 4’
Pedal: Subbass 16’, Bourdon 8’
Sw/Gt, Sw/Ped

Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: Flute 4’
Swell: Flute 2’ (?)
Pedal: Bourdon 32’