Not a Silent Night

Most people would probably associate the word “meditation” with something quiet, subdued, and useful for relaxation. Music for such meditations would likely be rather repetitive, without a whole lot of motion or energy. My piece for solo piano, “Meditation No. 2: The Invisible, Now Revealed” is certainly not that.

Why do I call my piece a “Meditation” if it is not quiet and subdued? It has to do with how I am using the word “meditation.” Most people probably associate meditation with the idea of bringing the body to stillness and emptying the mind, but this is not biblical mediation. Biblical meditation is active – it is a deep and focused contemplation of Scripture. Imagine chewing your food for a very long time to get every last bit of flavor and juice from each morsel. This is biblical meditation: Scripture is the food and contemplation the chewing. In my solo piano meditations, I aim to express some of the ideas born from that contemplation.

In 2018, I purposed to write a Piano Meditation for Christmas. Each year my church has a Christmas Eve Collage Concert. We’re a small church and don’t have a large choir, so instead of something big like a cantata, we do a few smaller pieces along with other solos, duets, and trios performed by various members of the church. We have a variety of singers and instrumentalists that participate, and I wanted to add an original solo piano piece to the concert. Since it was for the Christmas Eve service, I chose to base it on a segment of Scripture about the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, chapter two.

In chapter two of Luke, starting in verse eight, the shepherds on the hillsides outside Bethlehem are suddenly confronted one night with a large number of angels in the sky making a birth announcement about a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, one who is the Messiah, the Christ. As the narrative continues, the shepherds leave the sheep, run into town and find the baby. Verse nineteen says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

This is not a silent night.

Perhaps it began quietly. I live in a rural town. Nothing much happens at night. It’s pretty dark, too, especially if it is cloudy and the stars are hidden. I can imagine what it might have been like for the shepherds on a hillside, the sheep sleeping nearby. I’m sure their night started off pretty uneventfully. They probably had a fire going to keep away predators. Perhaps they were taking shifts staying awake and resting. The sudden appearance of a host of angels was a major shock. A dark sky, perhaps with some twinkling stars, was suddenly riven with a host of angels shouting, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests.” A host is not a small number. It is an army. A huge number of angels filled the sky.

Imagine hearing this. Imagine seeing this. This is not a tap-on-the-shoulder-can-I-get-your-attention-please. This is not subtle. This is not quiet. And so my piano meditation is not quiet. Or, at least it doesn’t stay quiet.

The beginning of the piece is mysterious and perhaps a little spooky. I chose some very low notes, strong dissonances and slow movement to depict what it might have been like to be in the countryside at night in the chilly air on the lookout for predators. I incorporated “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”, an ancient chant often found harmonized in the Christmas section of church hymnals, into this first section. It is my favorite “Christmas” melody, and I thought it fit well with my ideas for the quiet and contemplative beginning.  But suddenly, like the angels’ appearance, a sforzando of high notes pierces the music. The music becomes more forceful with a steadier beat, running fast notes, and louder dynamics. Throughout the middle section, I used the melody from “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” another ancient plainsong chant, as the cantus firmus, found at times in both the high and low voice. The other voice dips and rises and swirls around it, as I imagined the frenzy of a host of angels appearing in the sky.  The use of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is slightly ironic, since it is normally sung very slowly and reverently and admonishes mortal flesh to be silent. Yet, I have made it very loud and frenetic. According to the hymn, who is to keep silent? Mortal flesh. I imagine that night on the hillside, the shepherds were indeed very quiet, stunned into silence. But the angels are not mortal, and they were not silent. Eventually, the music transitions back to the first idea, once again quieter and more contemplative, but different and punctuated with questions: what does this all mean? Like Mary, I ponder these things in my heart, and I hope listeners will as well.

The title comes from the book of Colossians chapter one, verse fifteen which describes Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” Jesus made God known. God became flesh and lived among us. The invisible has been revealed.

Listen to the piece below. If you are interested in purchasing the score, it can be found here.
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