A little more than 97 years ago, a young man -- a noted American composer and pianist, in fact -- sat down at a keyboard instrument called a celesta and played a heavenly version of "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" . . . "Silent Night" to you and me.
The young man and his glockenspiel-sounding contraption were in a Victor Talking Machine Co., studio in Camden, N.J., and they sat in front of a large horn that would capture the music and funnel those vibrations to a diaphragm connected to a needle. The needle would cut grooves into a blank wax disc -- the master recording.
And that recording became a side of this record, released in December 1915. Someone bought it for 75 cents that Christmas, and it came down through generations until it landed in a box of old records Sunday at an Omaha estate sale.
I bought it and some others for 50 cents a piece, and what began in Camden when the Great War wasn't yet "great" and America was still at peace, Sunday night spun on a record changer in my little studio in Omaha. Alas, this occurred many wars after "the war to end all wars."
THE YOUNG MAN, all of 25 at the time, was Felix Arndt. Around this time, Arndt, despite his own youth, was becoming a mentor to a teenager eager to make his mark in the music business.
A decade later, George Gershwin made quite the mark, indeed.
By the middle of October 1918, though, Felix Arndt would lose his life to the Spanish influenza epidemic. He was 29, survived by his wife, Nola, and his music.
That music, generations later, lives still within the grooves of an almost century-old record and emerges to touch a world that, in 1914, surely would have been almost unimaginable. A world whose music was changed by a certain young kid who hung out with, and was influenced by, Felix Arndt.
No man is an island. Neither is any man's music.
It's rather like the communion of saints, isn't it? Just in the grooves of ancient 78s.
Sometimes, when I'm in an old church, if I try hard enough, I can visualize all the generations of believers who sat there before me, all of us present -- across time and defying the grave -- each generation singing a verse of a never-ending hymn. Likewise, when I find an ancient record and place the needle into a well-worn groove, I hear a long-ago verse of a song still sung, and I realize that I am not my own . . . and neither are you.
We stand upon the shoulders of our forebears, all of us bought and paid for with the blood of a long-dead savior Who lives still, conducting this symphony of the generations, world without end.
Felix Arndt's rendition of Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,
Victor 17842-B, as archived by the Library of Congress.
My copy actually might sound a little better than this.