“October is a symphony of permanence and change.” ~ Bonaro W. Overstreet
There was hardly a soul who wasn’t standing in stunned silence. Mouths agape. In some cases, it seemed drool was making its escape from lower lips. Most didn’t even care to wipe the excess spillage from their chins, they simply continued to drool. Of course, I might exaggerate just a tad.
The great pipe organ at the larger-than-most Catholic church blared forth its magnificence. It had been recently renovated. It was beyond magnificence, if such a thing is possible. Of course, it wasn’t playing itself…more on that in a moment.
It was Christmas Eve, many, many years ago – Midnight mass.
Being the “assistant” to the choir director, I suggested the idea of the singing of “Silent Night” precisely at midnight and thought it would be magical. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time in history that “Silent Night” had been sung precisely at midnight come Christmas, but, in my young mind, I thought it was. How we fool ourselves sometimes.
Just the faintest of glow from the ceiling chandeliers, along with the multitude of candles burning throughout the church set the “mood”.
Goose bumps and chills had set in. Absolute quiet. 800 people crammed into a church, not knowing what was to come next but all in quiet anticipation.
Recording equipment had been readied. Singers were ready, the organist, along with a small contingent of string and woodwind musicians were ready. Then the midnight hour. Christmas magic!
As the organ, along with strings and woodwinds started playing the simple yet blessedly elegant “Silent Night” as the clock struck midnight, I must confess that even I was overcome with emotion.
It was one of the few suggestions that I’ve made in my life which were actually undertaken that turned out quite splendidly.
But there was a moment later to come that would surpass my unique, but no-so-unique idea.
As was tradition, the mass would end with a rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. I had either sung the bass part or heard it at least a hundred times…or so it seemed. In my mind, there was nothing that could have topped my “stroke of midnight” idea of Silent Night being performed at precisely midnight on Christmas morn – even the brilliant Hallelujah Chorus couldn’t top it.
The Mass had ended, and with it came the performance of the Handel’s Hallelujah. As the performance was coming to its conclusion, it was then that’s when mouths started to open.
The organist decided to improvise, adding some additional gems that he determined had escaped Mr. G.F. Handel when he composed his masterpiece. I had turned around to face the congregation below the choir loft. Why? Because I couldn’t figure out where those additional musical notes were coming from. They weren’t coming from the singers or orchestra – there were no visible angels that I could see. The improvisation was coming from the unassuming, quiet, humble organist…one of the most brilliant organists living in America, and as with most brilliant, classically trained musicians, mostly unrecognized. It was so stunning, so beautiful, so powerful that all one could do was watch and listen with mouth open.
The piece ended. Mouths continued to hang open for a few seconds. Then finally, joyous applause.
Sadly, the recording of that midnight mass has been lost. But what wasn’t lost, at least to me, was the look of sheer joy on the faces of the congregation. Stunned joy, actually. Was there actual drool…probably not. Did the moment transcend my not-so-unique idea of singing Silent Night precisely at midnight – in every possible way!
As I made my way down from the choir loft with the choir, orchestra members and organist – assisting this decrepit, aging organist down the staircase – there was a gathering at the bottom of the stairs.
Most never paid much attention to choir members or organist on any other occasions, save for this night. In their own mind, I think, they wanted to see and acknowledge genius.
As we made our way down the stairs, I asked him, where in the world did his improvisation come from. He gave me a wry smile and said…”I don’t know, it just came to me.”
He had studied music, composition and church organ playing in Paris. He was unassuming, humble, questioning, perplexed, somewhat of a demon of a choir director and a stoic madman when playing the organ. He was a musical genius, yet uncelebrated, who devoted his entire life to his craft. But more than anything, all he hoped to do with his life was to give inspiration and joy to others.
As I thought my stroke of midnight idea would be what carried Christmas joy to all in attendance that Christmas Eve, it was his improvisation, that which “just came to him” that was the magical moment.
His favorite time of the year was Christmas. He lived for it. He didn’t have children. He never married.
When the calendar turns to October, I remember him, deceased now some 15 years. For each October, he would start humming Christmas tunes, he would start planning the Midnight Mass musical offerings. He loved every moment of the season. And the joy he gave to thousands upon thousands throughout his life must be immeasurable.
It might be a bit early for Christmas music, but to show a bit of his playfulness, I conclude with the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Everyone is familiar with this – it’s the one associated with scary Halloween music (much to the dismay of Mr. J.S. Bach, I’m sure, or then again, maybe not).
As regular Sunday mass was over one fine October morning, he looked at me as I was standing next to him at the organ console and gave me that same wry smile. He started playing the Bach piece, from memory, on the morning of that October 31st. As with his “spur of the moment” improvisation with the Handel piece, the congregation turned abruptly, hearing the magnificent and familiar opening, and simply stood and listened – once again, mouths open – mesmerized.
Sometimes it’s those moments that just come to us where our inspiration allows others a bit of a glimpse into the heavens. For the heavenly moments this dedicated musical genius gave to me and so many others, I am most grateful!
J.S. Bach -Toccata & Fugue in D-minor – Stephanuskerk Hasselt
Photo credit: (Holy Ghost Church): By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit (organ console): Arpingstone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons