Advent hymn’s composer aims to draw audience into the quiet of the season

| December 5, 2017 | 0 Comments
Daniel Kantor plays the Advent hymn “Night of Silence"

Daniel Kantor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis plays the piano in his Bloomington home. He wrote the Advent hymn “Night of Silence” in 1981, and the piece has been performed and recorded by choral groups, ensembles and singers around the world. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

It was the light that caught Daniel Kantor’s eye.

He was on retreat in Superior, Wisconsin, praying in a chapel with thick, block glass windows. Although it was September, the quality of white light that filtered through them reminded him of snow and winter and of home.

He was a junior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul studying piano, and he was still adjusting to city living after growing up in small-town Spooner, Wisconsin. The surprising thought of winter made him nostalgic for Advent and Christmas, and of being home with family.

He took that feeling to his piano, where he wrote the first draft of what would become the Advent hymn “Night of Silence.”

That was in 1981. The following year, St. Thomas’ liturgical choir performed the piece at the university’s Christmas concert. Then, two years later, GIA Publications, a major liturgical music publishing house in Chicago, published it. It lists the piece as its bestselling Christmas octavo, or booklet-style sheet music, with more than 30,000 copies sold. According to GIA’s website, “‘Night of Silence’ has been broadcast worldwide on PBS and NPR, and performed and recorded by some of the world’s finest choral groups, orchestras, ensembles and singers.”

Kantor, a parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis, is amazed that “Night of Silence” has continued to resonate so well with choirs and their audiences. Other liturgical composers — including locals David Haas and Lori True — have created new arrangements of the piece for different ensemble types.

Thirty-six years after writing the piece, Kantor, 57, said he feels more like its “steward” than its owner. Because of its success, and because it’s available in several forms, he started building a website to serve as a resource to help people find the arrangement that best fits their needs. Then he realized the website’s purpose should be broader and bigger, and draw people into the meaning of the song, so they more deeply engage with the season of Advent.

The website, NightOfSilence.com, includes links to the song’s various arrangements, but it also includes videos and blog posts explaining the story behind the song and reflections on Advent symbolism such as the rose, the “holy practice of patient waiting” and the “Cosmic Christ of Advent.” Contributors include Haas, fellow composer Father Michael Joncas and Stillwater iconographer Nicholas Markell.

Kantor sees the website filling a real need.

“I think Advent is being elbowed out,” he said. “We go from Thanksgiving to Black Friday … and the next thing you know, we’re into Christmas. Advent has all but disappeared, at least in the secular world. And even in the Catholic world, it’s easy to honor the season of Advent by attending a Sunday service, but it should be more than one hour on Sunday morning. Advent is an opportunity to lower ourselves down, to empty ourselves, to quiet ourselves, and to do that at a time of year when we are more busy than we are through the rest of the year.”

The preparation inherent in Advent points to a beginning, not an end, he said, noting that in the Church, Christmas doesn’t end on Dec. 25, but lasts through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

“I don’t know that you can build up to something like Christmas without preparing for it,” Kantor said. “Christmas is deserving of that kind of presence in our life.”

As a song, “Night of Silence” has been used to bridge Advent and Christmas, as it is a “quodlibet” with the classic “Silent Night.” As such, it begins with Kantor’s music and lyrics, but then switches to “Silent Night,” and then the two are sung simultaneously, the new hymn complementing the familiar carol. The “quodlibet” technique is difficult to achieve, Father Joncas observes in a video about the piece’s origins.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is a work of genius,’” Father Joncas said. “A quodlibet … is very hard to write. It is a counter melody that stands on its own and is perfectly legitimately sung without any reference to another melody, but when that other melody is brought in and the two play against each other, that is just glory.”

Connecting “Night of Silence” with “Silent Night” gives the piece a “sense of nostalgia and a connection with our past and a connection with our tradition and where we’ve been,” Kantor said. “It takes … ‘Silent Night’ and breaks it open and makes it new again by redirecting people to that time in the liturgical year that precedes Christmas.”

Because “Night of Silence” includes “Silent Night,” choirs often use the piece throughout Advent and into the Christmas season, Kantor noted.

The song’s imagery includes roses in the snow, a symbol Kantor delves into in a blog post, “The Advent Rose.” Noting the 15th-century Advent hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” he  wrote that the symbol has “a rich and ancient history” with “paradoxical meanings.” The post goes on to explain the rose in Scripture and tradition, from the Rose of Sharon and the Virgin Mary as the mystical rose to the Golden Rose, an ornament that the pope traditionally sends to Catholic dignitaries on Lent’s Laetare Sunday.

Night of SilenceCold are the people, winter of life,
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night,
Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping,
Flowers that will echo the sunrise,
Fire of hope is our only warmth,
Weary, its flame will be dying soon.

Voice in the distance, call in the night,
On wind you enfold us you speak of the light,
Gentle on the ear you whisper softly,
Rumors of a dawn so embracing,
Breathless love awaits darkened souls,
Soon will we know of the morning.

Spirit among us, shine like the star,
Your light that guides shepherds and kings from afar,
Shimmer in the sky so empty, lonely,
Rising in the warmth of your Son’s love,
Star unknowing of night and day,
Spirit we wait for your loving Son.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Weary, its flame will be dying soon.

“The rose is both a symbol of purity and passion; heavenly perfection and earthly passion; virginity and fertility; death and life,” Kantor wrote. “What the rose means to Catholics in the United States might be different to Anglicans in England.”

“Night of Silence” has resonated beyond the Catholic Church. St. Olaf College music professor John Ferguson arranged a score for voices and instruments for the Northfield college’s annual Christmas concert.

Well-known hymn composer Marty Haugen also featured the song in a 1995 album named “Night of Silence,” and he traditionally ends an Advent concert with the piece at Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, where he is a composer in residence.

“Traditionally, there haven’t been many Advent [carols],” Haugen said. “It’s very hard to create a new musical piece that catches on as well as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel; that’s always going to be the staple for communities. But ‘Night of Silence’ comes close.”

He added: “Dan has tried to say that what we sing can also help shape how we understand the season, and I think music, as we all know with Christmas carols, we couldn’t do Christmas without the carols; it just wouldn’t [feel like] … the holidays. ‘Night of Silence’ was intended to be an Advent carol, and I think it spawned more writing of Advent music because people realized that was an unmet need.”

Simplicity shapes Kantor’s work as a graphic designer, and his life with his wife, Sara, in their Bloomington home, he said, where he believes “less is more.”

“We live in a smaller house. We’ve learned the benefits of paring down and not surrounding ourselves with a lot of noise and stuff we don’t need or use,” he said. “Advent is the season for minimalists, because it’s asking us to pare down, to get rid of the noise in our lives, to quiet our minds.”

He added: “I’m not surprised now in hindsight that at a time in my life when I really needed to compose a piece that was somewhat healing for me to do, that I composed a piece like ‘Night of Silence.’ … I was telling myself that there is hope, and you have permission to simplify your life and focus on what really matters. Composing that piece is a message to myself that I’m still receiving.”

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