So much Christmas music focuses on light: stars shimmering, glories streaming, hearths glowing, faces shining.
That, even though the holiday comes as much of the Northern Hemisphere is plunged into cold and darkness.
The hymn "Night of Silence," conceived in Wisconsin's northwoods and born in St. Paul barely 20 years ago, encourages listeners to touch the darkness as they await the Christmas light. The song, woven lyrically and harmonically with "Silent Night," has become a staple of many a holiday service in churches around the world.
Composer Daniel Kantor of Bloomington says "Night of Silence," which is interlaced into the first verse of "Silent Night," is not a Christmas carol. It's an ode to the darkness of Advent, the four weeks of anticipation before the holiday, and a reassurance that light will come.
" 'Night of Silence' is an Advent piece that really bridges the transition from Advent into Christmas, so it's that really vulnerable transition state between darkness and light," Kantor said recently.
Kantor added: "We've all been there. . . . It was crafted on where I was at the time, but it was also a function of learning about the season of Advent, and that Advent is meant to be a season of quiet and emptying one's self, saying no to the noisy world that we're all called to participate in."
"Cold are the people, winter of life,
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night . . ."
In the fall of 1981, Kantor, a 21-year-old music student at the University of St. Thomas, was on a retreat in northern Wisconsin. As he meditated, the high, glass-block windows bathed the chapel in a cold, white light.
"It created the impression of snow for me," he said. "It was an austere, white light. . . . I am now aware -- I wasn't then -- that I was quite sad. I felt like I was losing touch with myself musically and had forgotten the point of why I had chosen to become a music major."
As he contemplated the wintry light, Kantor was inspired to create music to be sung with "Silent Night."
Over the next three months, Kantor experimented with new harmonic possibilities for "Silent Night." Then, discarding the original melody, he created a new melody to go with the new harmony. The result is a new song that can be seamlessly meshed with the old one.
Kantor didn't know at the time that he was creating a quodlibet, a musical form that interweaves two seemingly unrelated pieces.
"Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping,
Flowers that will echo the sunrise . . ."
Composing the music was only the first challenge. Kantor believed he was incapable of writing lyrics to his own music. His mentor, Rob Strusinski, director of the St. Thomas Liturgical Choir at the time, encouraged and guided him as he revised the poem.
Calling on his memories of northwoods Christmases, as well as other seasonal imagery, Kantor offered Strusinski a draft. His mentor found the poem weak and a little "schmaltzy," Strusinski wrote in an e-mail from Japan, where he now is teaching at Osaka Gakuin University. Strusinski offered a couple of metaphors and some suggested reading, and urged Kantor to try again.
"He brought in a second draft and whammo, he scored a perfect fit," Strusinski wrote.