OBERNDORF, AUSTRIA, December 22, 2014 – Among the most beloved and universal of all Christmas carols is “Silent Night” which was first performed on Christmas Eve in a tiny Austrian church nearly 200 years ago. This is the story of how it came to be.
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.
Oberndorf bei Salzburg, as it is officially known, is situated 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.
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 due to mice but other versions claim that rust had caused the problem.
Without the availability of an organ, the actors performed their program in a private residence instead.
The Reverend Mohr attended the show which was adapted from the first chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament.
So impressed by the performance was Father Mohr that he decided to take the long way home so that he could meditate about the season.
Mohr’s walk took him over the crest of a small hill overlooking Oberndorf from which he could view the glistening snow-covered panorama shimmering in the moonlight beneath the stars. Reveling in the thoughts of the program he had just witnessed and the serenity of the cold wintry night, the pastor peered down at the Christmas-card setting and recalled the poem he had written just one year before.
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.
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. The problem, of course, was that there was no music to which the poem could be sung.
The next day, Mohr went to visit the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, and asked him if he could compose a melody which could be sung with a guitar that would be suitable for his poem.
With only a few hours to create his masterpiece, Gruber composed a tune that could be sung without the need of an organ. And so, as circumstance would have it, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” was born because the church where it began had no organ.
The Oberndorf congregation heard the carol for the first time on Christmas Eve of 1818 when Mohr and Gruber sang the words accompanied by Gruber’s guitar.
Several weeks later, the well-known organ builder, Karl Mauracher, arrived in Oberndorf to repair the broken instrument. Upon completion, To make certain it had been fixed satisfactorily, 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, who was overwhelmed by the music, took copies back to his own village of Kapfing where two well-known family singing groups – the Rainers and the Strassers – heard it for the first time.
Both families were captivated and during the following yuletide season it was incorporated in their Christmas repertoire.
The Strasser sisters spread the carol throughout northern Europe and, in 1834, when King Frederick William of Prussia heard it for the first time, he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas eve.
By 1838, the Rainer family brought the song to the United States where 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 has more than 200 versions and has been translated into hundreds of languages.
Perhaps most meaningful of all its history, however, came during the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I. It was then that “Silent Night” was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by the troops on the front lines. And the reason – because it was the one carol that all the soldiers on both sides of the battlefield knew.
“Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright,” and music is truly universal.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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