My Favorite Christmas Music Explained: Oh Holy Night

| December 16, 2008 | 19 Replies

One of the things I love most about the Christmas season is the music. No other holiday supplies us with such rich and varied music performed by skilled musicians, as well as beautiful pieces mangled by people who should be prohibited by international treaty from ever singing them.

My favorite Christmas song, and the one most often rendered mediocre by otherwise talented singers, is O Holy Night. I’ve heard, I’d guess, two dozen different versions of this song and all but two of them leave me cold. Even when done by Josh Groban or Celtic Woman who are as close to technically perfect musicians as you will ever hear, the renditions always lack the “oomph” that make the song a masterpiece.

So what’s lacking? When the song falls flat, It always happens at the words “Fall on your knees”, when the chords turn distinctly minor and the emotional impact of the song ratchets up a couple notches. Most singers drive into that section with power and emotion, but they always hold back for the later “O night divine” part where they hope to hit the really high note and get the big ovation for their vocal skill. But when they hold back there, they rob the song of emotion right when it’s most demanded.

Consider the lyrics: Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels’ voices! Those aren’t requests but commands and they should sound like commands. You should feel the abrupt change to the minor key and the majesty of the lyrics as if you were one of the shepherds to whom the choir of angels appeared. If you do not have to resist the impulse to do just what the song demands, then the singer hasn’t done their job. But after that, the song changes to a triumphant major chord on “Oh night divine”, which should fill you with as much rapture as the former section had filled you with awe. Again, if it doesn’t, the singer blew it.

Only two versions I’ve ever heard get that physical reaction from me that I believe the song requires. One is by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the other is the finest rendition of the song I’ve ever heard, by Luciano Pavarotti. When you listen to the TSO version, pay attention to how the guitarists don’t cheat the downbeat chord changes with their flourishes. They’re savvy enough to know what is important in the song and what’s just showing off. Pavarotti is just…perfect. He leaves nothing behind when he is done singing. You have gotten his best effort.

Below the jump, Oh Holy Night – the two best versions I know. Keep a copy of the lyrics nearby when you listen and follow along. Put yourself in the place of the shepherds. Imagine yourself on that quiet hill late at night when suddenly, in a blazing and thunderous minor chord, the angelic choir cleaves the sky in two and announces the birth of the King. Can you remain unmoved? Not with these renditions of the song.

And if you don’t like the rock and roll of TSO, here’s their orchestra backing Michael Crawford – yes that Michael Crawford – singing the same song later in the program. His voice starts out light, but he fills it up very nicely. That’s how it should be done.

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