To call Aretha’s reading of “Silent Night” magnanimous would be an understatement. It’s grandiose, from Aretha’s distinctive piano accompaniment to the orchestra’s lush progressions. Aretha’s “Silent Night” is a slow-moving arrangement, twisting and turning entirely at the will of Aretha’s fingers at the piano. Like 1972’s “First Snow In Kokomo” and 1979’s “I’m Your Speed”, this is one of the only Aretha Franklin songs that isn’t driven by a rhythm section. The timing of the song is left up to Aretha at the piano. As a result, she’s able to take her liberties and take her time.
The strings add an intensity to the song, especially at the introduction. The dialed back tempo combined with all other elements gives it a dramatic feel, perhaps one of the most dramatic readings of the song. It doesn’t possess the gospel charge of performances like Mariah Carey’s or Mahalia Jackson’s, nor perhaps Josh Groban’s. But Aretha’s voice has an intensity that moves through the body like an electric charge.
Aretha’s “Silent Night” was used during a 2015 episode of Scandal which took place during the holidays. A series of scenes unfold, most notable being a charged depiction of Kerry Washington’s leading character Olivia Pope, receiving an abortion. Aretha approved the placement, according to show-runner Shonda Rhimes, something that even surprised Rhimes. It’s placement punctuated a divisive subject to say the least, and while the use of the song doesn’t necessarily indicate Aretha’s perspective, it certainly had an impact on the scene.
After Aretha’s passing in 2018, a “Solo Piano Version” of Aretha’s “Silent Night” released to digital and streaming outlets. It strips away the orchestra, background vocals, and other flourishes of the original version. What’s left are Aretha Franklin and the piano, in a scene that one perhaps may find on any given day at her home. In sections where the choir and background vocals previously did some heavy lifting, it’s just Aretha’s piano, beautifully occupying the space. The solo piano version even ends with the release of the final chord, and the sound of Aretha exhaling as she rises from the piano. It’s a profound thing to hear, but at the same time, so regular of an occurrence for a pianist like Aretha.
Aretha didn’t record “Silent Night” just once, either. In 1994, she reunited with the Four Tops for numerous cuts on their Christmas Here With You. This version and Aretha’s 2008 version are night and day. Here, Aretha makes her entrance around 3 minutes in, over a cacophony of strings and something between a Carribean and bossa nova-inspired groove. As she does on the other tracks on Christmas Here With You, Aretha more or less charges in and sings the ever living hell out of the song. Aretha also performed another arrangement of “Silent Night” on Martha Stewart’s show Martha in 1999, though it’s unknown if that version was ever recorded.
Stream Aretha’s original Silent Night and the Solo Piano Version: