For many who feel renewed and restored by the familiar tune of a Christmas carol, it's often more about the memories than the music.
For Maria Riccio Bryce, music director at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Schenectady, "Away in a Manger" instantly takes her back, evoking strong memories of what was a wonderful time in her life but also a period fraught with concern. She was a young actress, living in England, and was pregnant with her first child.
"I was so far away from my family and as much as I wanted a child, I knew not the first thing about being a mother," said Riccio Bryce, an Amsterdam native and writer of "Hearts of Fire," a 1990 musical about the Schenectady Massacre. "Amidst all the excitement and wonder in my heart there was also an element of fear."
Riccio Bryce went for a walk through her London neighborhood one Christmas Eve morning and stumbled upon a nativity play being rehearsed by a group of children in a local church. She watched a young girl walking down the aisle with the Star of Bethlehem aloft and as she was approaching Mary and the baby Jesus, the young girl began to sing.
"Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head."
Riccio Bryce will always remember what a strong effect the scene had on her.
"The other children joined in, in cadences of innocence, and my eyes filled with tears, as in the simplicity of the words, in the beauty of the tune, and in the sublime faithfulness of its message, I felt the eternal, unfailing, magnificent hope that Christmas brings us, stir deep inside me," she said. "As I quietly left the church, I knew I had been gifted with a new resolve to 'fear not.' I never forgot that Christmas Eve and 'Away in a Manger' has been my favorite Christmas Carol ever since."
As Christmas of 2018 approaches, the Gazette is marking the 200th anniversary of "Silent Night" by asking a dozen Capital Region music lovers to name their favorite Christmas hymns. For three-time Tony-nominated Carolee Carmello, a 1979 Albany High grad and 1983 University at Albany alum, listening to any Christmas hymn stirs up wonderful old memories.
"I grew up in the Pine Hills neighborhood, and we went to St. Vincent's Catholic Church on Madison Avenue," said Carmello, who lives in New Jersey. "Any of the beautiful hymns are nostalgic for me. They remind me of my childhood and family."
Her favorite is "O Holy Night."
"As a singer, I really love that song because it allows you to really open up and go full-voiced in that final stanza," she said. "It's very passionate. 'Fall on your knees, O hear the angels voices.' It's a great song."
Many of today's favorite Christmas hymns have mysterious origins. In some cases the writer is unknown, and in others there are two or three different authors with claims of ownership. On many occasions a hymn was originally a poem with music added decades later.
'Away in a Manger" was published late in the 19th century with Irish-American William J. Kirkpatrick and Massachusetts native James Ramsey Murray both credited with composing the piece. The writer of the lyrics, once thought to be Martin Luther, is unknown.
"O Holy Night," meanwhile, was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to words written a few years earlier by French poet Placide Cappeau.
Around that same time, Union College graduate Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote a poem, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and a few years later in 1849 he put it to the music of Richard Storrs Willis.
Also referred to as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," Sears' work is the favorite of Julie Panke, a Wisconsin native who came to the Schenectady area in1979. A former music director at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady, she now conducts three Capital Region organizations; the Thursday Musical Club, the Festival Celebration Choir and Capital Community Voices.
"I've always been drawn to 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," said Panke, who earlier this year directed "Songs for Suffrage," a concert at Schenectady County Community College commemorating the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote. "Edmund Hamilton Sears was educated at Union College and Harvard Divinity School, and was a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Massachusetts. It stressed the social message of Christmas, peace on Earth and good will, in particular to the weary and downtrodden, as expressed in the third verse.
"Some say that the tune to which it is set in most of our current-day hymnals is too upbeat to match the seriousness of the text," added Panke, "but it is the one to which most of us are accustomed."
Ann Derrick, director of the award-winning Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High Concert Choir, also puts "Midnight Clear" at the top of her list.
"I love the melody, and I remember singing it in church as a little girl," said Derrick, an Iowa native who spent some time as a musical theater performer in New York City before starting her teaching career at Burnt Hills 19 years ago. "It always reminded me that God sent Jesus to Earth in such a humble and quiet way. Still as an adult, when I sing this hymn I can picture that clear and quiet night as the world was sleeping, the angels were melodiously announcing thee most magnificent birth... the birth of Christ our savior."
Albany Symphony Orchestra director David Alan Miller may be Jewish, but was still happy to offer his opinion.
"I don't get a chance to sing them that often, but I love all the Christmas hymns and the spirit of the holidays," said Miller. "My mother, who was Jewish, used to sing 'Silent Night,' and I guess if I were to pick some of my favorites I'd select more of the ecumenical ones, like 'Joy to the World' and 'Deck the Halls.' There are plenty of gorgeous songs, but all hymns have that great Christmas message."
Not all of the hymns selected by the Gazette's panel of 12 judges were household names. Curtis Funk, director of the Octavo Singers, chose as his favorite, "Past Three O'Clock," a Christmas carol written by George Ratcliffe Woodward and sung to the tune of "London Waits." It was first published in 1924.
Robin Leary, an actress and music director at the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, also picked a lesser-known piece called "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." Originally a German song, it was the work of an unknown author and was first published in 1599.
Wendy Haugh, a freelance writer and long-time piano player from Burnt Hills and teacher, and Clifton Park's Valerie Lord, an actress, retired teacher and music director, both selected "In the Bleak Midwinter" as their favorite, and Dominick Giaquinto, music director at First United Methodist in Schenectady, liked "Angels We Have Heard on High."
Elinore Farnum, a long-time organist with the First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, went with "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" as her favorite, and Derek Delaney, director of the Union College Concert Series and a self-described "recovering French horn player," picked "Little Drummer Boy" as his top hymn.
Their Top 3 carols
Maria Ricco Bryce (actress, songwriter, piano player) - No. 1 "Away in a Manger," No. 2 "You Came Down from the Stars," No. 3 "Silent Night."
Carolee Carmello (Tony-nominated musical theater actress) - No. 1 "O Holy Night," No. 2 "Silent Night," No. 3 "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."
Derek Delaney (artistic director of the Union College Concert Series) - No. 1 "Little Drummer Boy," No. 2 "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," No. 3 "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."
Ann Derrick (director of the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High Concert Choir) - No. 1 "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," No. 2 "Joy to the World," No. 3 "Silent Night."
Elinore Farnum (pianist, music director at First Presybeterian Church in Schenectady) - No. 1 "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," No. 2 "Silent Night," No. 3 "Joy to the World."
Curtis Funk (artistic director of Octavo Singers) - No. 1 "Past 3 O'Clock," No. 2 "Angels We Have Heard on High," No. 3 "Of the Father's Love Begotten."
Dominic Giaquinto (music director at First United Methodist Church of Schenectady) - No. 1 "Angels We Have Heard on High," No. 2 "Of the Father's Love Begotten," No. 3 "Go Tell it on the Mountain."
Wendy Haugh (freelance writer and piano teacher) - No. 1 "Into the Bleak Midwinter," No. 2 "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," No. 3 "Silent Night."
Robin Leary (actress, music director at the Presbyterian New England Congregational UCC Church) - No. 1 Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," No. 2 "Rise up Shepherd and Follow," No. 3 "Joy to the World."
Valerie Lord (actress and music director for various theater and church groups, retired music teacher from Ballston Spa) - No. 1 "In the Bleak Midwinter," "Of the Father's Love Begotten," No. 3 "Once in Royal David's City."
David Alan Miller (director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra) - No. 1 "Silent Night," No. 2 "Deck the Halls," No. 3 "Joy to the World."
Julie Panke (music director for Thursday Musical Club and two other chorale groups) - No. 1 "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," No. 2 "Silent Night," No. 3 "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
Based on their Top 3, the overall Top 10
No. 1 - "Silent Night," composed in 1818 in Austria by Franz Zaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr.
No. 2 - "Joy to the World," originally written in 1719 by English writer Isaac Watts.
No. 3 - "O Come, All Ye Faithful," attributed to various writers during the 17th and 18th centuries, including John Francis Wade, John Reading and King John IV of Portugal.
No. 4 - "Of the Father's Love Begotten," originally a poem written by Roman Aurelius Prudentius in the 4th century, it was first published in a Finnish song book in 1582.
No. 5 - "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," written by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849 and put to music by Arthur Sullivan and Richard Storrs Willis.
No. 6 - "In the Bleak Midwinter," originally a poem in 1872 by Christina Rosetti, put to music by Gustav Holst (1906) and Harold Darke (1911).
No. 7 - "Angels We Have Heard on High," (also known as "Gloria,") written in 1862 by Englishman James Chadwick to the music of an older French song, "Les Anges dans nos campagnes.
No. 8 - "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," written by English poet Charles Wesley around 1739 and first published in 1840
No. 9 - "Away in a Manger," Originally credited to Martin Luther, ownership of the music is now given to either William J. Kirkpatrick (1895) or James Ramsey Murray (1887)
No. 10 - "O Holy Night," composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 with the words of poet Placide Cappeau.
'Silent Night' turns 200
Thank God Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber crossed paths in Arnsdorf, Austria back in 1818.
Mohr, a young priest living in nearby Oberndorf, had written the lyrics for a song back in 1816, and during the holiday season of 1818 he approached Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist, about turning his words into music. The result was "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht," or as we know it today, "Silent Night."
On the 200th anniversary of the song's composition, it is still one of the most popular Christmas hymns today. Bing Crosby's version in 1935 was his best-selling record of that decade, and the song is still the third-best selling single of all time.
The song is on everyone's top ten list of Christmas songs, and unlike many other traditional hymns with vague origins, it's very clear who wrote the words to "Silent Night" and who added the music. However, that wasn't always the case. For more than a century it was assumed that the melody was written by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, and it wasn't until 1995 that researchers found an old manuscript crediting Mohr and Gruber as the song's writers.
For people like Julie Panke, Maria Riccio Bryce and Wendy Haugh, whose faith is often a big part of their music, "Silent Night" is very special.
"It evokes wonderful memories of light; a wondrous star, shepherds quaking at the sight, radiant beams," said Panke, director of the Thursday Music Club in Schenectady and two other choral groups in the Capital Region. "Yet, miraculously, all is calm while a baby sleeps. The song, when first sung by German soldiers in the trenches during the truce of 1914 along the Western Front, inspired both French and British soldiers to reciprocate gestures of friendliness and peace for a brief respite to the horrors of war."
"I don't think there is a more divinely beautiful carol in the entire world," said Ricco Bryce, an Amsterdam native who has written four musicals. "The way the music lifts gently upward on the lyric, 'All is calm, all is bright,' has bestowed transcendent peace upon the world for two centuries now."
"It starts out softly, tentatively, but swells with each successive verse as the Christmas story unfolds," said Haugh, who has taught piano in the Burnt Hills area for more than 40 years. "It epitomizes the true reason for the season. As the first Christmas carol I ever learned as a child, I think it is hardwired into me, as I'm sure is the case with many people."