At least once, this Christmas, we will hear or sing ‘Silent Night’, which must be one of the best-known and best-loved carols in the world. But who wrote it, and why? The story of the carol begins on a Christmas Eve in 1818, in the town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria, where it seemed Christmas Masses at the Church of St Nicholas would have to be celebrated with very little musical accompaniment. The church organ, normally played by choirmaster and local schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber, was not working properly. It looked as though Gruber would be limited to his guitar to play music for the Mass. Although Gruber had great musical talent, as did Joseph Mohr, the assistant pastor at the church, neither of them was aware of any Christmas song that could be set to guitar music.
Mohr, however, thought of an alternative. Two years earlier, he had been assistant pastor at the village of Mariapfarr, in the Lungau region where his grandfather lived. While there, he had written a six-verse poem about his thoughts on the birth of Christ, and his wish for peace, which was especially strong at that time, when the Mariapfarr area was badly affected by the 1792 - 1815 wars that had resulted from Napoleon’s efforts to expand his territory. These wars had been fought from the year of Mohr’s birth to that of his ordination as a priest.
Now Mohr brought the poem to Gruber, who set it to music on the same day. That evening, both men sang the song, ‘Stille Nacht’, at Christmas Eve Mass, with Gruber accompanying Mohr’s words on guitar and singing the bass part, while Mohr sang the tenor, and the choir repeated the last line of each verse. With a few variations, mainly that it was sung at a much faster pace than the gentle melody we know today, this was the first public performance of the carol we know as ‘Silent Night’.
The congregation who first listened to ‘Silent Night’ would have been no strangers to tragedy and economic collapse. During the recent wars Oberndorf had existed in an atmosphere of uncertainty and oppression, its territory claimed by various powerful nations as the borders of countries were drawn and redrawn: Salzburg, formerly an independent principality, now found its land shared between Austria and Bavaria. Trade in the area depended on the transportation of salt by boat along the Salzach river, but now that this river became part of the new border, and the administrative centre of Laufen lay in a different country. Oberndorf’s transport companies, boat builders and workers were left to face unemployment. These people, and their families, would have made up a great number of the congregation that listened to Mohr and Gruber sing of the desire for universal peace.
Clearly the congregation at Oberndorf enjoyed the carol, and felt that it communicated a sense of their hopes for the future. Knowledge of it began to spread quickly: weeks after the first performance, organ-builder Karl Mauracher visited Oberndorf and brought copies of the carol’s manuscript to family singing groups in the local area, who added it to the songs they performed at Christmas. The carol’s first recorded publication came in 1833, when it was included as the last in a pamphlet of four Tyrolean songs published by A. R. Friese of Dresden and Leipzig. In 1834 the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, was so taken with the carol when it was performed by him by the Strasser family singing group, that from then on he had it sung in his cathedral every Christmas Eve. The Rainer family singing group gave the carol its first performances in the United States in subsequent years.
Although the carol was quickly translated into English, and has over its lifetime been translated into over forty languages, the standard English version sung today remains that of John Freeman Young, a bishop in Florida, whose translation was published in another pamphlet of carols by Daniel Dana in New York in 1859. ‘Silent Night’ was now the first carol in the publication, signifying its popularity. Its association with the desire for peace grew after the 1914 Christmas truce during the First World War, when troops on both sides of the front line sung the carol in German, English and French, discovering it was part of the common ground they shared. Bing Crosby’s 1935 recording of ‘Silent Night’ sold over 10 million copies worldwide; he consistently refused to accept any royalties from it, allowing charities to benefit instead.
Today, the famous carol is celebrated as part of the heritage of Oberndorf. The church where it was first performed was demolished in the early 1900s due to flood damage, but a Silent Night Memorial Chapel was built on its site in 1937, with a museum nearby. At the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg, the earliest existent manuscript of the carol is displayed, from around 1820. The composer, Gruber, went on to write more religious music, and many more arrangements of his most famous carol. In 1854, at the request of the royal and ecclesiastical authorities, he wrote the account of how ‘Silent Night’ came to be composed. Joseph Mohr, who wrote the lyrics, had died six years earlier, in the village of Wagrain, where he went on to be pastor. He is remembered as a gentle and spiritual man, whose vision of “heavenly peace” has become part of the world’s celebration of Christmas.