By Beth Dodd:
One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories is of a candlelight service at our family’s church on Christmas Eve. The sanctuary was softly illuminated by the altar candles and backlit stained glass while the congregation hummed Silent Night. The words of this simple, beautiful carol have touched the hearts of people around the world for almost 200 years.
The original words for Silent Night were written in German by a modest Austrian clergyman. The music was composed by a local musician who was unknown beyond his village. The result of their collaboration was a timeless hymn that has been translated into dozens of languages. It is known and loved around the world. For example, the song was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by opposing troops on the battlefield in World War I during the Christmas truce of 1914. The song created a moment of blessed peace during a terrible time.
In 1816, almost 100 years before that moment on the battlefield, Father Joseph Mohr was a young priest assigned to a church in Mariapfarr, Austria. He wrote the words for Silent Night while he served the people there. We do not know what specifically inspired Father Mohr to write the song. The following year he was transferred to the parish church in the hamlet of Oberndorf, a few miles north of Salzburg. There he met and became friends with the church’s organist, Franz Gruber.
On Christmas Eve in 1818, Father Mohr visited Gruber, a musician and schoolteacher who lived above the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. Mohr asked Gruber to create a guitar accompaniment to go with his Christmas poem so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass that night. Mohr’s reason for wanting the new song is unknown. Some speculate that the organ was not working or that he just wanted some new music for Christmas.
“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was performed for the very first time at midnight mass in the St. Nikolaus Church in Oberndorf on that Christmas Eve in 1818. Father Mohr sang tenor while Gruber sang bass accompanied by Father Mohr’s guitar. The church choir repeated the last two lines of each of the six verses in four-part harmony.
After the first performance of the song in 1818, it was passed along by Karl Mauracher. Mauracher was a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley who worked on the organ at the Oberndorf church. While at St. Nikolaus, he was given a copy of Silent Night and shared it with two families of traveling folk singers from the Ziller Valley, the Strassers and the Rainers, who added the song to their repertoires.
The Strassers sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. Around this time several musical notes were changed, and the carol evolved into the melody we know today. On another occasion, the Rainer Family sang the song for Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. In 1839, the Rainers performed “Stille Nacht” for the first time in America at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.
Joseph Bletzacher, a court singer from Hannover, Germany reported that by the 1840s, the carol was already well known in Lower Saxony. According to Bletzacher, the Royal Cathedral Choir popularized it especially. It was the favorite Christmas carol of King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who had the Cathedral Choir sing Silent Night for him every Christmas.
By the time Silent Night had become famous across Europe, Joseph Mohr had died and was unknown as its author. Franz Gruber told music authorities in Berlin that he was its composer, but they did not believe him. Instead, the tune was thought to be the work of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. This misunderstanding continued well into the twentieth century. The controversy was finally put to rest in 1994 when an arrangement of “Stille Nacht” written in 1820 by Joseph Mohr was authenticated. In the corner of the piece, Mohr had written, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.”
The original 1818 manuscript of Silent Night remains missing and may no longer exist. The Joseph Mohr arrangement from 1820 is probably closest to the way it was first sung at Midnight Mass on that long ago Christmas Eve in Oberndorf. Copies of the carol were produced by both Mohr and Gruber at various times between 1820 and 1855. Five orchestral arrangements of the song written by Franz Gruber are known to still exist today.
In 1859, the Episcopalian bishop John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung now. The modern version of the melody that is generally used is a slow lullaby, differing slightly from Gruber’s original, which was a more sprightly, dance-like tune in 6/8 time.
Franz Gruber’s grave is at his last home in Hallein, Austria which is now the site of a museum. It contains several furnished rooms in his former home along with exhibits about the history of Silent Night, including Father Mohr’s guitar which was played on that first silent night. Gruber’s grave is decorated with a Christmas tree every December.
Father Joseph Mohr’s final resting place is in Wagrain, Austria, a tiny Alpine ski resort. He died there penniless in 1848. He’d given away his money to be used for eldercare and children’s education. He is remembered by the people of Wagrain at the Joseph Mohr School, located near his grave. The overseer of the Wagrain church described Mohr as “A reliable friend of mankind. Toward the poor, a gentle, helping father.”
The Saint Nikolaus Church in Oberndorf was razed in 1906 because of flood damage, but the Stille Nacht Kappelle (Silent Night Chapel), stands in its place. The tiny white chapel was consecrated in 1937. Next door is the vicarage where Mohr lived from 1817 to 1819 and a museum. Each Christmas Eve a memorial service is held there. Thousands of people from around the world sing Silent Night together in many languages. The song was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 2011.