The scene is almost something out of a movie: Snow covers the St. Thomas campus in December 1981. Four friends huddle around the piano inside the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, the lights around the chapel dimmed.
Then-junior Dan Kantor’s hands move over the piano’s keys, the sound joined by the student voices of Joanne Wagner and Dan Swanson, while classmate John Seiwert plays guitar. The song is “Night of Silence.”
That winter evening was the first time Kantor’s original hymnal composition was heard. Little did any of the four St. Thomas students know it was destined to become a true classic, a song played in dozens of countries, on famed singers’ CDs, and performed by countless orchestras and choirs the world over.
“It was truly magical,” said Wagner – now Joanne Pauley and a St. Thomas employee – of being part of the genesis of a song that has garnered so much fame. “It was so understated because he said [the original recording] was something to give to his parents for Christmas. … Who knew that not too long after it became really, really popular, and now it’s amazingly popular.”
“It was a magical moment,” Kantor said. “We just played the tape over and over again, and it was clear to us – at least me – that this was going to work.”
From St. Thomas’ campus to the world
That final product was thanks to some pointed guidance on the original draft from Rob Strusinski. At the time, he led the St. Thomas – St. Catherine Liturgical Choir and Campus Music Ministry program at St. Thomas. Father Jan Michael Joncas was another influencer, who was already famous in the composing world for “On Eagle’s Wings,” which has since gone on to become one of the more famous hymns in the world.
Kantor’s second attempt yielded the beautiful product so many know today, a quodlibet, a partner song that can be sung simultaneously with another song, in this case “Silent Night.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh. This is a work of genius,” said Joncas, who is now St. Thomas’ artist-in-residence after many years of teaching here. “This particular form is very hard to write. It’s a counter melody that stands on its own and is perfectly, legitimately sung without any reference to another melody. When that other melody is brought in and they play against each other, that is just glory.”
Whether paired or on its own, “Night of Silence” has journeyed from that magical night in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas around the world.
“It’s gone beyond Catholic liturgical music,” Kantor said. “For that I’m grateful.”