On December 24, 1818, a song was born that would wing its way into the hearts of people throughout the world. The carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria.
The congregation at that Christmas Mass in St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of the assistant pastor, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr’s guitar.
On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines of the song. Now translated into an estimated 330 languages and dialects, untold millions sing it every December from small chapels in the Andes to great cathedrals in Rome. It’s estimated that two billion people can sing the carol.
Joseph Mohr wrote the German-language words for the original six stanzas of the carol we know as “Silent Night” in 1816, when he was a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria. His grandfather lived nearby, and it is easy to imagine that he could have shaped the poem while walking through the beautiful Alpine countryside on a visit to his elderly relative. The fact is, we have no idea if any particular event inspired Joseph Mohr to pen his lyrical vision of the birth of the Christ Child. The world is fortunate, however, that he didn’t leave it behind when, the following year, he was transferred to Oberndorf a tiny village situated on a river plain near Salzburg.
On December 24, 1818 Joseph Mohr journeyed to the home of musician-schoolteacher Franz Gruber who lived with his wife and children in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. Father Mohr showed his friend the poem and asked him to create a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be performed at the Christmas Mass. His reason for wanting the new carol is unknown. An early 20th Century story speculated that the organ would not work but modern historians feel that he merely wanted a new carol for Christmas; one that he could play on his guitar.
Later on Christmas Eve, the choir rehearsed in preparation for Midnight Mass. Then the two men, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” for the first time. They could hardly imagine the impact their composition would have on Christmas celebrations around the globe for generations to come.
In December 1839, the Rainer Family Singers, an Austrian folk-singing family, performed “Stille Nacht” for the first time in America at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.
By the time the song had become famous, Joseph Mohr had died and the composer was unknown. Although Franz Gruber wrote to music authorities in Berlin stating that he was the composer, the melody had been assumed to be the work of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven at various times and these thoughts persisted even into the twentieth century. The controversy was put to rest in 1994 when a long-lost arrangement of “Stille Nacht” in the hand of Joseph Mohr was authenticated. In the upper right hand corner of the arrangement, Mohr wrote, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.” On the same manuscript, his notation that he wrote the words in 1816, put to rest the numerous tales that he wrote the poem in haste in 1818.
A number of Gruber’s orchestral arrangements of the carol exist, and can be seen, along with Joseph Mohr’s guitar at the Franz Xaver Gruber museum in Hallein, his former home.
Joseph Mohr, born into poverty in Salzburg in 1792, died penniless in Wagrain in 1848, where he had been assigned as a pastor of the church. He had donated all his earnings to be used for eldercare and the education of the children in the area. His memorial from the townspeople is the Joseph Mohr School located a dozen yards from his grave. The overseer of St. Johann’s, in a report to the bishop, described Mohr as “a reliable friend of mankind; toward the poor, a gentle helping father.”
Perhaps this is the miracle of “Silent Night.” The words flowed from the imagination of a modest curate. A musician, who was barely known outside the various villages where he lived and taught, composed the music. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Somehow, its message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, becoming an anchor for Christmas celebrations throughout the world.
In September 2007, six Austrian communities – Oberndorf, Arnsdorf, Salzburg, Hallein, Mariapfarr and Wagrain – each of them connected to the carol’s creation, joined forces to promote the story of “Silent Night” to tourists. An English-language travel brochure is available from the Silent Night Association. E-mail your request to email@example.com
For more information about the Silent Night Association, visit www.silentnight.at
(Bill Egan, a former U.S. Navy Journalist, has written about Christmas topics for publications around the world.)