For this 14th day in our Christmas book journey, I bring a picture book about another famous Christmas song; but this time to share its history. Most people probably don’t even take note of the names that often now accompany the sheet music for “Silent Night,” but this is their – and its – humble tale. Here is Silent Night: The Song and Its Story by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Tim Ladwig, 1997.
It all began in a small town of Austria in the early 1800’s. The day was Christmas Eve and the tiny church was preparing for the special Mass when a big problem arose. The organ would not make a sound. Franz Gruber, the church organist, was downcast and the choir members disappointed in the waste of all their hard preparation. The distraught young minister, Father Joseph Mohr, frantically attempted to revise his sermon to fill the musical gap. As he pondered the special and wondrous Christmas story, he decided to try his hand at writing a simple song that would share the Nativity story in a beautiful and clearly understandable way.
A folk song is what came out. He raced it over to the organist, Franz Gruber’s home and requested him to compose a tune for it. The idea was for it to be a simple tune for just their two voices and the Father’s guitar. “An easy tune, …, like a lullaby, to make us see Bethlehem and the baby lying in the manger.”
The story goes on to share how the song kept appearing throughout the years in different places, how the creators of it disappeared from knowledge for a while, how it eventually made its way to America to be translated into English, and has now become a Christmas carol nearly the whole world sings during the holiday.
Author Margaret Hodges constructed a well-researched and presented story about such a famous little folk song. While I find the text to be quite heavy, it is informative and interesting to learn from. The captivating part of the book of course, is the illustrations. While not a stranger to Tim Ladwig’s work, I love being continually impressed by his skill and composition for picture books. A very detailed artist, the light and color for his illustrations are always quite astounding. For Silent Night, he does an excellent job capturing the different time periods and radiating light in each spread.
I do have one minor issue with the book that I cannot quite get over: the text talks of six verses that Joseph Mohr composed and yet the sheet music included at the end only has three. I found it annoying, as I tend to pick up on those details, and I wish there had been a note or something about the English translation only being three verses which were altered to rhyme. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I did find a version of the original German song with six verses and their literal English translation. I will close this review for today with my favorite, verse two:
Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, O how he laughs
Love from your divine mouth,
Then it hits us – the hour of salvation.
Jesus at your birth!
Jesus at your birth!
Follow along our book adventure at 25 Days of Christmas in 2013.