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Discovering a Rare Christmas Musical Gem

December 18, 2017 by

winter sun

Having given us the Christmas market and the Christmas tree, the Advent wreath and the Advent calendar, Germany has an outsized influence on the way millions of people celebrate the holidays. It has also produced some of the world’s most beautiful and ennobling music for the season, from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah to hundreds and hundreds of carols.

True, its traditions may not be as pure as they once were: the tentacles of capitalism have wrapped themselves just as firmly around celebrations in Germany as they have everywhere else. Artificial trees and garish LED displays are rising in popularity, supermarkets offer Advent calendars featuring a different craft beer for each day, and even the welcoming hubbub of the annual Christmas market, that most communal of all seasonal celebrations, has now been seriously marred (at least for the wary visitor) by the specter of potential ISIS-related terror. How could it not be, with enormous concrete bollards blocking vehicles at every entry?

Fortunately, little has touched what may be the country’s most prized cultural possession when it comes to Christmas: its wealth of music. Nurtured mostly by amateur choral groups (Singvereine) and brass choirs (Posaunenchöre) it resounds from village churches and cathedrals, high-school auditoriums and big-city concert halls alike at this time of year, and draws thousands of singers and concertgoers of all ages.

Having lived in Germany the last several years, I’ve been lucky to attend numerous such events. But living overseas doesn’t mean you can’t take part. Recordings abound in every genre. Here’s one of my favorites, a rarely-sung piece by Max Bruch called “In der Christnacht” (“On Christmas Night”). Performed by the RIAS-Kammerchor, a vocal ensemble founded in Berlin after the Second World War, RIAS (“Radio in the American Sector”) has since gained a reputation as one of Europe’s best chamber choirs.

I have yet to hear a RIAS program that I didn’t like, but Bruch’s short piece (it’s less than five minutes) is a stand-out in and of itself. For one thing, it is one of those inimitable German Christmas songs whose text grasps the heart of the festivities, rather than their trappings, or souped-up nostalgia for the perfect childhood that wasn’t.

Not that I have a problem with mistletoe – there’s nothing that’ll brighten up a gray December day like Patti LaBelle (or Chris Brown, for that matter) belting out “This Christmas.” But when you start thinking about why the holiday exists in the first place, it’s likely you’ll end up turning to something deeper – to something that holds true even after you’ve tossed the wreath in the dumpster and returned your tree stand to the attic.

“Were Christ born a thousand times in Bethlehem, and not in thee, thou wouldst still be eternally forlorn.”
—Angelus Silesius

Back to Bruch’s piece: it’s worth reading the original text (below) before you listen to the song, or – if German isn’t your thing – my attempt at a translation (also below). What I love about this poem (it was written by Kaspar Friedrich Nachtenhöfer, a churchman from Halle who died the same year Handel was born there) is its remarkable simplicity, and its tone of reverent awe. Also its oblique modesty, which disdains to actually name any of the characters in the Christmas story, but perfectly reflects its deepest meaning. To me, its message is like a corollary to the well-known adage of the 16th-century mystic Angelus Silesius, who said, “Were Christ born a thousand times in Bethlehem, and not in thee, thou wouldst still be eternally forlorn.”

As for the music, I can’t think of another Christmas piece that captures, to such dramatic chiaroscuro effect, the radiance of the Child against the gloomy black of nighttime and despair. Pulled forward by gently undulating harmonies beneath it, the soprano line starts out as a deceivingly simple downward melody, but then rises, gaining in intensity, and soars to a climactic high A-flat before coming back down to rest on the final chord. There’s tension throughout the song – suspensions that resolve only on the last beat of a cadence, like shadows that yield only when the sun is actually up over the horizon. But ultimately it’s a statement of serene faith: despite all that is wrong in the world, there is still beauty and goodness – and light.

Intrigued? Listen to RIAS-Kammerchor singing Max Bruch’s “In der Christnacht” here:

You can also follow the music by downloading this copyright-free PDF of the vocal score.

Here’s the text, too, in the original German, and my translation to English:

In der Christnacht

Dies ist die Nacht, da mir erschienen
des großen Gottes Freundlichkeit!
Das Kind, dem alle Engel dienen
bringt Licht in meine Dunkelheit,
und dieses Welt- und Himmelslicht
weicht hundert-tausend Sonnen nicht!

Lass dich erleuchten, meine Seele,
versäume nicht den Gnadenschein!
Der Glanz in dieser kleinen Höhle
dringt bald in alle Welt hinein,
er treibet weg der Hölle Macht,
der Sünden und des Todes Nacht!

Kaspar Friedrich Nachtenhöfer (1624-1685)

On Christmas Night

This is the night on which I saw
the kindness of the Almighty power:
the Child whom all the angels serve
brought light into my darkest hour –
the light of heaven that yields to none:
not even a hundred thousand suns.

Let it illumine thee, my soul,
and shy not from its grace; so bright
the radiance from this cave, it soon
will fill the very earth with light,
will chase the powers of hell away,
and sin, and turn death’s night to day.

Translation: CMZ, 2017


About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman and his wife, Bea, live at Holzland, a Bruderhof house in a village south of Berlin.

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