Thursday, December 25, 2008

How the Guitar Saved Christmas?

It's the 190th anniversary of the first performance of Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) in Obendorf, Austria, 1818. According to the well-known story, the local priest Joseph Mohr went to the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, on Christmas Eve and asked him to compose music for a set of lyrics Mohr had written. They would perform the new song with the choir at midnight mass that night. According to the various legends attending the writing of Silent Night, the church organ had broken down, perhaps because mice had chewed through the pipes, no repairman could make it through the snow to fix it, and what to do about the Mass? Hence the call for the guitar to save Christmas—a challenge the guitar rose to admirably, of course. These legends have mostly been debunked as later embellishments on the tale. Nevertheless, the Mohr-Gruber collaboration was real and produced a huge hit—Silent Night is now sung in dozens of languages, not to mention piped ubiquitously through the world's shopping malls. A year ago, the mayor of Foshan, Guangdong, one of China's export-driven coastal super-counties, toasted a traveling delegation of American professors with several glasses of maotai liquor at a formal banquet, then invited us to join him in singing Silent Night. He is no Christian, at least not publicly, since the Communist Party frowns on religious affiliation by its officials, even when their districts turn around $3 billion annually in foreign trade. Still, he sang louder and better than any of us. (He led the song in English, but we might as well have sung 平安夜,圣善夜 / 万暗中,光华射 . . . .)

The simple lyrics and pretty melody are clearly part of the song's attraction. But it is also a perfect guitar song: three chords, in key of D; as you can see from this score (the earliest extant version, from c. 1820, in Mohr's hand) the accompaniment involves base chord-chord and arpeggio playing (hear a stream of a performance as originally written) you can see how Gruber might even have worked out melody and harmony on a guitar, since the parallel thirds are easily played on this instrument.
Gruber's guitar was one of the small romantic age instruments; it closely resembles those of the Viennese style (developed in turn from Italian models). The Viennese school was dominated in the first decades of the nineteenth century by the luthier Johan Georg Staufer. It was in Staufer's shop that C. F. Martin learned the trade, and of course later brought his skills as a luthier to the U.S., with memorable results. Compare Gruber's Silent Night guitar (above) with a Stauffer guitar (right below) and a Martin (left below), each from the 1830s:

But there's more to Silent Night as a guitar tune. Despite the waltz beat and the V chord that comes a little early, it's a three chord song with a middle IV chord section, and the climax on the V7. Add a 7th to the IV chord and the bluesy feel is unmistakable, though probably not what Mohr / Gruber had in mind. In any case, bluesy or not, it's a simple three-chord popular song—called a "Tyrolian folk song" early on—which makes it readily played and learnt by guitarists and others. On the one hand, then, Silent Night's global popularity certainly owes much to its lyrics, quiet spirituality, compelling back-story and (dare I say it?) candy-box imagery (that snowed-in Austrian hamlet on Christmas eve—you can almost smell the strudel). But at the same time, it is an exemplar of the partnership of the simply structured European song form and the guitar, a partnership that for several centuries battled in the vanguard of Western Music's triumphant colonization of the rest of the world. (This is a longer argument than I can make here now—it is Christmas, after all, the kids are yelling at me to come downstairs for present opening. But in brief: starting as early as the 16th century, aspects of European music, including song-forms, Western tonic-dominant tonality, temperament and other features spread around the world to where they are now so ubiquitous that their ultimate origins escape notice. Guitars, including vihuelas and other guitar prototypes, played a big role in this process, I maintain, in large part due to their ease of manufacture, ease of play, portability, ability to produce both melody and chordal accompaniment, suitability for self-accompaniment by a singer, and so on.)

The guitar and the church

One key reason the Silent Night story resonates is the way the humble guitar saves the day when the noble organ cannot perform. Like the barnyard animals or the little drummer boy jostling with the Three Kings to worship Christ in the manger, the common, stripped-down folksiness of the guitar reminds us of the simpler things Christmas is supposedly about. Of course, Obendorf 1818 was not the guitar's ecclesiastical debut. Starting in the early 1500s, Catholic missionaries deliberately introduced guitars into churches in Goa (south India) and Latin America with the explicit goal of undermining local "devilish" musical traditions. They failed in this goal, of course, and a few years later were writing back to the Vatican to complain that young men were playing completely inappropriate music on their guitars, and doing so in the churches no less! So the European musical juggernaut, which the guitar did so much to drive along, thankfully left a marvelous melange rather than simply substitute alien for indigenous musical traditions. Much more on this later.

There's at least one more irony regarding the Church's relationship with the guitar: the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) are often simplistically derided as kicking out Latin and bringing guitars into the church. Unfair and inaccurate as this view no doubt is, the reason why critics of Vatican II latch onto 1960s-ish guitar strumming as a contrast to traditional Latin liturgy and, I don't know, Gregorian chant, is the same reason the guitar saved Christmas in Obendorf: the guitar has an intrinsically folksy, demotic, and democratic quality to it. For those who valued the Church's High and Mighty aspect, its awesomeness, mystery, power and authority, the guitar seemed like a bad symbol. But I'm in no sense a Catholic historian; perhaps a certain Catholic bass player of my acquaintance who has just joined a famous nationally touring Christian Celtic Rock band would care to comment?

Finally, my own Christmas tale: like the kid in that stupid movie, A Christmas Story, when I was 13 or so, I badgered my parents endlessly to buy me a bb gun. As good permissive 1960s-1970s parents, they did so, but not before tricking me by placing a long, rectangular box behind the tree just where I expected to find my new gun. Only after they had relished my disappointed face when I opened the box and found a cheap classical guitar, did my folks retrieve the bb gun from a closet. That year it was the gun that saved Christmas for me, but the guitar won out in the long run.

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