The Tabernacle Choir Blog

Pete and Judy Duelo, parents of Nicholas Duelo (1980-2003), to whom "Silent Night" was arranged for.

Mack Wilberg’s “Silent Night”: The Heartwarming Story of This 2017 Concert Piece

Update (11/30/18): The "Silent Night" music video, starring Kevin Sorbo, is now available at the conclusion of this blog post. The audio was recorded live during the 2017 Christmas concert of which this story mentions. 

Sometimes a coincidence is just that—but sometimes it is much, much more.

In late 2017, Mack Wilberg was in Minneapolis to conduct a concert as part of the American Choral Directors Association state conference, when he had a chance encounter with Pete and Judy Duelo. The Duelos were attending the concert at the request of a young coworker of Pete Duelo. Wilberg had no prior knowledge that the Duelos would be at the concert. When the Duelos arrived, they decided to take seats in the balcony where an acquaintance of theirs happened to be an usher.

The friend contacted Wilberg’s host for the concert and helped to set up a special meeting between the Duelos and Wilberg after the concert, where they met for the first time. Before moving on to the heartwarming conclusion of this story, it’s important to learn the backstory. 

Silent Night (February 2003)

On February 7, 2003, Pete and Judy Duelo lost their son Nicholas (Nick) due to a tragic car accident. Following his devastating passing, the Duelos searched for the best way to honor their son’s memory. They worked with leaders at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where Nick was a senior at the time of his death. Nick was very active in the choral music program, performing in Norsemen, Cathedral Choir, and Collegiate Chorale. His parents knew how important singing in the choir was to him, and it came as no surprise to them when Nick told them, “Music is an integral part of my life.”

Dr. Timothy Peter, professor of music at Luther College, agreed and said he felt “Nick’s participation in choir at Luther was one of the most significant parts of his Luther experience.” For this reason, the family decided that they wanted to commission an arrangement of a choral music piece to commemorate their son. This is how Mack Wilberg came into the picture. Dr. Peter was well-acquainted with Wilberg’s talents as a choral arranger and suggested they approach him.

“We were always so proud of any work we’ve done by Mack Wilberg,” explained Dr. Peter. “It seems that every time we’ve done a piece by him it has been very meaningful for both the participants and the listener.” “Silent Night” was chosen because it is the tune most associated with Christmas. Wilberg accepted the commission but never actually met the Duelos. The sheet music reads “Commissioned for Christmas at Luther 2006 to the glory of God in loving memory of Nicholas Duelo ’03 (1980–2003) by his parents, Pete and Judy Duelo.”

Love’s Pure Light (December 2006)

In December of 2006, Wilberg’s arrangement of “Silent Night” in honor of Nick Duelo was performed during the 25th anniversary of Luther College’s annual Christmas at Luther concert. “Silent Night” was performed by a choral group during the special candle-lighting portion of the evening, where the lights were turned off and the music was used to set a solemn mood. As the group sang, they stood in a large circle around the audience and slowly lit candles one from another, ending with the last candle lit just as they ended the song. It was a very solemn, touching, and emotional event for everyone.

Judy emphasized the beauty of the moment: “The candle-lighting song is not done anywhere else the way Luther does it. The goal of this music is to touch the soul and transport the listener.” She added, “We hoped that this music in loving memory of our son would move its listeners and strike a deep spiritual chord at this holy time of year.”  (The arrangement of “Silent Night” was also used by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on their concert that same December. The recording of that concert, Spirit of the Season, was later nominated for a Grammy Award.)

The Dawn of Redeeming Grace (November 2017)

Fast-forward eleven years. When Wilberg met with the Duelos in Minneapolis in November, he mentioned the coincidence of meeting them for the first time in a year Wilberg had included their commission of “Silent Night” on the repertoire for the 2017 Christmas concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a few weeks later. The stars seemed to be aligned—Wilberg invited the couple to come to Salt Lake City and offered to arrange tickets to the sold-out event. 

The Duelos were honored at the invitation but thought it might be too much to pull off in such a short time. Over Thanksgiving dinner, friends convinced them it was an opportunity not to be missed. “When will you be able to hear in person the music you commissioned for your son conducted by the man who arranged it performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” they said.  Amazingly, plans came together, travel and concert tickets were arranged, and the Duelos were able to come and see “Silent Night” performed by the Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

Of the experience, Judy said, “When our commissioned ‘Silent Night’ was premiered at Luther in 2006, it was a magical moment in time we'll never forget, as was the fabulous concert in Salt Lake. We can’t thank you enough for your gracious hospitality. We felt very welcomed and have wonderful memories of the Choir, the concert, the people, and the gorgeous singing of ‘Silent Night.’”

Of the chance encounter in Minneapolis and the coincidental programming of “Silent Night” for the 2017 Christmas concert, Wilberg observed, “The light, shimmering orchestration used in the Duelos’ commission was just what was needed for our 2017 concert. I was so pleased Pete and Judy were able to attend in person and even more pleased that the music they commissioned in their son’s memory will reach such a large audience through the Choir’s recordings, next year’s PBS and BYUtv Christmas specials, and Music & the Spoken Word.”

Heav’nly Hosts Sing Alleluia! 

“Music is a living thing, and our prayer for this lovely music was that it be heard and felt by many,” declared Nick’s mother, Judy, while in Salt Lake City for the concert. With over 63,000 people hearing the carol during the concert weekend and potentially many millions more who heard it on the December 17 Music & the Spoken Word program, broadcast and streamed all over the world, her prayer continues to be heard.

Nick had a tremendous influence on his family, friends, and community around him. His mother characterized him as having a “joyful spirit.” A poignant section from Nick’s obituary reads: “In his 22 years of life, he had a tremendous impact on the lives and faith of countless young people. His love of family, people, life, travel, music, and of his Lord was evident in his life.” Sleep in heavenly peace, Nick.

Silent Night 
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace;
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from heaven afar;
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Savior, is born!
Christ, the Savior, is born!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth;
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.