Silent Night: the song and the story

Dr Ashley William Joseph talks about why the popular Christmas carol Silent Night is special for him

Dr Ashley William Joseph

I have always dreamt of a picture-perfect postcard Christmas setting. The stars in the night sky, the Christmas tree all decorated and Santa bringing gifts for everyone. 

I have always wondered what would Christmas be like without music and bells ringing from the steeple of the cathedrals. Christmas carols have been sung over the centuries and have been written and composed by people, hoping for a better and brighter tomorrow.

Many carols were popularised by folk singers from different parts of the world. With no internet or social media back in those days, this was the only way of sharing new music.

The scene in old Bangalore during Christmas season had carolers going from house to house, singing popular Christmas carols. The carolers would get a glass of wine, cake and cookies in return. 

I was born into a musical family and grew up with music throughout all my life. Christmas was always a special time when Christmas carols would begin right from November.
Schools, church choirs and independent music groups, across the city would have Christmas celebrations and render lovely performances.  

Bangalore was and continues to be a vibrant city. I still remember in the early 1970s and 80s, the streets would be filled with carol singers, going from home to home with a guitar in hand, singing songs of love, joy and peace. I remember singing on the streets till sunrise the next morning. 

Carolers would always conclude singing with Silent Night. Simple yet beautiful, I have always wondered how Christmas would be without this particular song. Would it have the same meaning? Over the years, this carol has captured my imagination. It is especially beautiful when sung in candlelight.

In the 1980s, having lived abroad and been a part of the Asian Chorale, I vividly recollect a time when singers who were a part of different countries sang Silent Night in different languages.

After I moved back to India, I started training school choirs and did an arrangement of this carol for 150-voice choir accompanied by the classical guitar. Little did I  know that the original arrangement of this carol in 1818 was also composed for voice and guitar arrangement.

Later, leading the Indian National Symphony Orchestra in Christmas concert, I did a modern arrangement of this carol for the 60-piece orchestra which was accompanied by an all-girls chorus. So popular was this carol that we had the audience singing in one voice together with the symphony.

Today, after so many years, I still get asked by many of my former students, who come from different faiths, whether they can come and join in singing Silent Night.

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