On a Monday in the fall of 2014, Christopher Clymer Kurtz was supposed to be teaching middle-school English, but was distracted with an idea for a song. On Tuesday of that week, he worked out a melody. On Friday, his spouse Maria dove into older Christmas songs, like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy to the World,” gleaning ideas for the text. And on Saturday, the complete song was performed for the first time, a final product called “Solemn Stillness, Weary Streets,” that is now No. 276 in Voices Together.
Based in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the Clymer Kurtzes perform as the singer-songwriter duo Clymer & Kurtz (clymerkurtz.com). Maria is a home educator and gardener, and a member of the women’s vocal ensemble, Shekinah. Christopher has worked in radio journalism, education, nonprofit development and marketing. Together, they have written many powerful songs that are widely loved. They are members at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.
The duo’s website features multiple videos of various ensembles performing “Solemn Stillness, Weary Streets.” Most lead the piece from the guitar, some with added instrumental lines or choral descants. From high school choirs to local congregations, the piece has resonated with a range of communities. The Voices Together arrangement employs unison verses, while the refrain has a soprano melody with a rhythmically contrasting harmony part notated for altos, tenors and basses. These harmonies offer a solid underpinning, complementing the melody by repeating “Joy to the world!” on strong chords.
On their inspiration for writing the piece, Christopher and Maria write: “When we imagined ‘Solemn Stillness (Joy to the World)’—our sole original Christmas song, which is included on our 2018 album Snow on Snow on Snow, and which was later adapted for the Voices Together hymnal—we wanted somehow to celebrate the intermingling of pain, longing, hope and joy that characterizes the season of Advent.”
They effectively communicate this range of experiences, as in the third verse: “Crushing fears are met with joy; sorrow’s curse is torn. Hear the music, fling your load down and unbend your tired form.” It is a hopeful anthem for a season that can be filled with exhaustion and grief.
The piece could be led in a range of ways, but it lends itself to accompaniment from acoustic guitar, taking advantage of the chord symbols provided throughout Voices Together. If the song is new to a community, a soloist could sing either the first verse or all three verses, with the congregation invited to join in on the chorus. Additionally, a choir or small ensemble could sing the harmony on the refrain, while the congregation would be invited to sing the melody. If the song is sung for multiple weeks during Advent, it could be slowly introduced with new layers every week.
The Clymer Kurtzes hope that the song will provide a way for individuals and communities to grapple with the range of emotions that emerge at Christmas. They write: “As a patchwork of imagery evoking both desolation and eager anticipation, we hope that ‘Solemn Stillness, Weary Streets’ will be a creative starting point for individuals and congregations to celebrate the Advent and Christmas seasons in the context of their own complex emotions.”
Anneli Loepp Thiessen is a PhD candidate in interdisciplinary music research at the University of Ottawa. She is co-director of the Anabaptist Worship Network and was a committee member for Voices Together.