Cold Are The People


Anthony Esolen helps LifeSiteNews break into music reviewing here. He flexes his chops as an English professor, but really: music is more than its text.

I won’t say anything about the intentions of the composer and author, or about his faith. I’ll grant that his intentions are good and his faith is ardent.

Professor Esolen might have done better just citing the composer, Dan Kantor, and referencing the text as “Night of Silence,” a companion song to “Silent Night.” Instead the reader gets two contradictory sentences that I suspect the writer wanted to strengthen a larger dollop of seasonal bile.

I checked the composer’s website where this informative bit is offered:

The text of the song was inspired in part by the northwoods of Wisconsin and the sparkle of freshly fallen snow in the moonlight of a sub-zero winter’s night.

Professor Esolen complains that …

If it’s night, and you’re indoors, you aren’t trembling in shadows, because there aren’t any shadows. It requires light to cast shadows.

It’s possible for a critic to over-think an analysis. When I was first introduced to “Night of Silence,” the imagery of the first verse seemed clear enough to me. I wasn’t thinking of a full moon in the forest–which does indeed cast significant shadows. The Star came to mind, but that could also have been in the context of other Christmas songs. Or even the light described in other verses of the partner piece, those “radiant beams from (Christ’s) holy face” or the heavenly glories streaming in the final verse.

I’ll grant that Mr Kantor’s text, taken alone, isn’t as traditional as a hymn or carol that tells a story. But it has a context.

Professor Esolen’s conclusion:

We are apt to think merely functionally when it comes to divine worship. So long as we pray, hear the Scripture, and try not to let our minds wander during the homily, all is well. That is a serious mistake. We are creatures of flesh and blood, body and soul, reason and imagination. We are capable of far more than logic. We are capable of wonder. We cannot allow the television, or the movie screen, or, God forbid, the leaking sewer of popular novels to form our imaginations. We would then be to the world like faltering and half-hearted preachers with bad breath.

It has long been time to return wonder and reverence to worship.

The man has a Wikipedia entry. He translates a lot. Maybe he could try his hand at original writing. It’s the artist’s principle: show, don’t tell. Dan Kantor may not be a poet in the same league as Dante, but I get a good picture of shadows in moonlight, or the barren cut-back rosebushes in my mother’s garden at winter. They seem more connected to the mystery of the incarnation than bitter reviews and swipes at colleagues programming for the Providence College music department.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Cold Are The People

  1. Liam says:

    Indeed, the full moons of the darkest months of the year are the brightest – they have a sky path similar to the sky path of the sun in the brightest months of the year (that is, the distance between rising and setting azimuth points, and zenith angle). It’s one of the most interesting features of the inversion of winter and summer sky patterns – when our nights are longest, the full moon phase offers the greatest night light.

  2. Liam says:

    PS: Esolen’s tone and timbre in that essay is a perfect match for the folks who complained about “dewfall.”

    • Liam says:

      PPS: It’s not like Silent Night is particularly fine in the lyrics department to begin with. I realize I sound like the Grinch here, but it’s one of the most Muzak-y of the Christmas classics. (The English does count as a paraphrase, but it’s weaker than the original German; it’s not as egregious as the English pap that substitutes for the much stronger French original Cantique de Noel (aka O Holy Night).)

      Consequently, I welcomed Night of Silence in the past. I would love for an excellent lyricist-composer to come up with an even better idea….

  3. John Drake says:

    It would seem to me that the truly talented poet/lyricist could both convey the desired imagery AND describe a situation realistically.

  4. As I mentioned over at the Café, the oddity was the choice of the Kantor text in the first place. There are certainly more vacuous texts in sacropopland than “Night of silence” that would have served as truly rotten apples in the barrel. “Yeah, Your grace is enough, yeah…..” Well, you get the idea.

    • Todd says:

      I didn’t see the Chant Café commentary initially. I don’t agree with you it was a good article. I do agree it was a vacuous choice on his part. On this one, I think Anthony Esolen is full of, to use a poetic term, crap.

      I find it fascinating that music critics can so badly miss the aim on so much non-classical music. While there’s definitely a lot of chaff out there these days, there’s no question that many people outside of classical music and Prudentius are producing thoughtful, intriguing meditations on faith and life through song texts. There’s also no question most of this isn’t selling in the bump-n-grind marketplace. But then neither is Magnificat.

      I also consider the source, and we all have to realize bile sells, even (or especially) when it is labelled “Catholic.” It sells a heck of a lot better than if Dr Esolen were to write a libretto for an opera or even texts for a song cycle. Or a single song or hymn. In his work for Magnificat, he’s fine with what Genevieve Glen collects for the effort, but I never see *his* name on the poetic end of things there. Do you wonder why that is?

      • “In his work for Magnificat, he’s fine with what Genevieve Glen collects for the effort, but I never see *his* name on the poetic end of things there. Do you wonder why that is?”

        It’s a hell of a lot more fun to curse the darkness than to light a candle.

  5. It struck is as odd that of all the texts in all the gin joints in all the world, Professor Esolen chose the Kantor poem. Tho’ he and Kathy Pluth might poke metaphorical holes in it, I can think of a hundred really rotten apples in the text barrel to make his case for “otherness” in our sacral texts. “Yeah, your grace is enough, yeah!……” Uh, you get the point.

  6. crystal says:

    From what I’ve read of him, Esolen is pretty conservative. There was an interesting email discussion between him and David Hart on suffering …. … and … … and … … and …

  7. Sorry for the double post, Todd. Didn’t realize filters in place.
    I don’t get out to the hinterlands as often as you. But we did get away for a weekend up in Napa and I went to the big gun parish there. Every darn aspect was “Spirit and Song” me ‘n’ Jesus, done by some fairly competent singers/musicians. It was like “Oakland… there, there.” The worst part, I would have joined in on principle if the songbook had the darn lead lines with the texts. But their absence was sort of a relief, as the banality of those texts was blatantly evident. As we’ve oft discussed, genre really isn’t the issue, quality of the individual works is. Then the quality of rendition becomes a priority. Best rendition of OEW ever? Joncas and his guitar, that’s it, at 79 NPM. Worst? Every slick, compressed overproduced, over-orchestrated professional Praise Team version well-endowed churches proffer.
    Regarding Esolen’s cred to review, what’s the old adage about opinions are like…..?

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