OBERNDORF, AUSTRIA — Among the most beloved and universal of all Christmas carols is “Silent Night.” It was first performed on Christmas Eve in a tiny Austrian church 201 years ago. This is the story of how it came to be.
A traveling troupe arrives in Oberndorf
In 1818, a small troupe of actors was performing in villages throughout the Austrian Alps when they came to the town of Oberndorf on December 23rd. Officially known as Oberndorf bei Salzburg, the town sits approximately 11 miles north of Salzburg on the shores of the Salzach River. Its sister village of Laufen in Bavaria, Germany lies across the Salzach Bridge.
The town had been divided in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when the onetime Principality of the Salzburg Archbishops was split in 1816 after the Congress of Vienna. In the same year, a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote a poem entitled “Stille Nacht” while living in Mariafarr, the hometown of his father. A year later, Mohr moved to Oberndorf in 1817.
It so happens that in 1818, the acting group was scheduled to re-enact the story of Christ’s birth at the little Church of St. Nicholas, but the organ was not working and could not be repaired before Christmas. Some say the organ was broken because it was infested with mice but others claimed that rust had caused the problem due to sporadic use.
Whatever the cause may have been, without the availability of an organ, the actors decided to perform their program in a private residence instead.
Enter the Reverend Mohr on a silent night
The Reverend Mohr attended the performance which had been adapted from the first chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. So taken was Father Mohr by the little heartfelt production that he decided to take the long way home in order to meditate about the season and what he had just witnessed.
Mohr’s walk took him over the crest of a small hill overlooking Oberndorf. From where he was standing, the priest could see a glistening snow-covered panorama shimmering in the moonlight beneath the stars. Reveling in the thoughts of the program and the serenity of the cold wintry night, the pastor peered down at the Christmas card setting and recalled the poem he had written a year earlier.
Now known as “Silent Night,” Mohr’s poem told the story of the night when angels proclaimed the birth of the Messiah to shepherds tending their flocks on a hillside.
A poem, a vision and a guitar
As he gazed upon the village, something in his heart told Reverend Mohr that his poem might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service the next night. One problem: No music existed to which he could set his poem.
The next day, Mohr went to visit the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, to ask him if he could compose a suitable melody for his poem, which the congregation could sing when accompanied by a guitar. With just a few hours to create his masterpiece, Gruber composed a tune that the people could sing without the need of an organ.
So, as dictated by circumstance, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” debuted with a guitar accompaniment simply because the church where it began lacked a functioning organ at that time.
The Oberndorf congregation heard the carol for the first time on Christmas Eve 1818 when Mohr and Gruber sang the words, accompanied by Gruber’s guitar.
Fixing a broken instrument unveils an immortal carol
Several weeks later, well-known organ builder, Karl Mauracher, arrived in Oberndorf to fix the broken instrument. Upon completing his repairs, to make certain it would provide a satisfactorily musical sound, Mauracher told Gruber to test the organ before he departed.
Gruber sat down at the keyboard and began to play his simple but elegant new Christmas carol.
Mauracher became overwhelmed by the music and the words of “Silent Night.” He promptly made copies. Then, he took them back to his own village of Kapfing. There, two well-known family singing groups – the Rainers and the Strassers – also heard the carol for the first time.
Both families felt captivated by the music. During the following yuletide season, they incorporated it into their Christmas repertoire.
The Strasser sisters spread the music of “Silent Night” throughout northern Europe. Eventually, in 1834, King Frederick William of Prussia himself heard the carol for the first time. He soon ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.
Traveling the Atlantic
By 1838, the Rainer family brought what English-speakers now know as “Silent Night” to the United States. They sang it in German at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside of New York’s Trinity Church.
Nearly 50 years after it was written, “Silent Night” was translated into English. Today the song appears in more than 200 versions and in hundreds of languages.
Perhaps most meaningful performance throughout all its history, however, came during the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I. At that time, frontline troops began to sing “Silent Night” spontaneously in French, English and German. “Silent Night” proved the one universal carol that every soldier on both sides of the battlefield knew.
“Silent night, Holy night / All is calm, all is bright.” These simple words transcend time, space and cultural differences. Indeed, they radiate a universal feeling at Christmastime.
— Headline image: Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Photograph by Gakuro. Image via Wikipedia entry on “Silent Night.” Attribution noted by Wikipedia and assumed by them via copyright claims. Published under GNU license 1.2 and Creative Commons 3.0 (unported). Also under CC 2.5 share and share alike license, covering this use. Modified to fit CDN’s format.
(Reprinted and updated from December 22, 2014)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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