The words for the Christmas carol we know as Silent Night were first set down on paper in 1816 in the tiny Alpine village of Mariapfarr, Austria. The fame of this composition spread throughout the world, and nearly two centuries later, people are still touched by both the simplicity and the strength of its message.
With music added by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818, Joseph Mohr created a song so powerful, it caused a World War I battle to temporarily cease as British and German soldiers sang of heavenly peace on Christmas Eve. During World War II, fighting was suspended on many fronts while people around the globe turned to their radios on Christmas Eve to hear opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing Stille Nacht. In addition to her status as an international opera star, Mme. Schumann-Heink was a mother with one son fighting for the Axis and another son fighting for the Allies. Her rendition of this inspired carol, first sung in the village of Oberndorf, Austria, had the power to bring a few moments of peace to a troubled world.
Today, in the U.S., we hear Silent Night played in shopping malls beginning in mid-October, yet Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! is more than just a Christmas song to the people of Austria.
"It's considered a national treasure," reports Charlotte Mueller, an Ormond Beach resident born in Salzburg. "You won't hear it played on radio or television before Christmas Eve, and it will never be used for advertising purposes. There is even an organization which was formed to protect it from commercialism."
The Stille Nacht Gesellschaft not only tries to protect the Mohr-Gruber composition, it tries to encourage the use of the original melody, slightly different from the musical notes we learned in elementary school.
Mrs. Mueller says she has a special feeling for Silent Night, because she knows people connected with various song-connected sites.
"The priest who oversees the parishes in Oberndorf and Arnsdorf, the historian in Arnsdorf, and the pastor of the pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr are very dear friends," she says. "My husband and I visit with each of them during annual vacations in Austria."
A retired college professor, she attended school in Salzburg just a block from the Carolino Augusteum Museum where several Stille Nacht manuscripts are archived.
The first performance of Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! in St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf, Austria, at Christmas Midnight Mass in 1818 was the result of a broken organ.
Various Disneyesque legends tell of mice nibbling at the organ bellows. However, that nuisance was ongoing and could have been easily repaired. The real culprit was the nearby Salzach River which flooded the area then, even as it does today. The dampness caused by periodic flooding caused rust and mildew in various workings of the organ, rendering it inoperable.
Fr. Mohr, the curate at St. Nicholas, wanted music for the Christmas service. He walked to nearby Arnsdorf, where his friend Franz Xaver Gruber was schoolteacher and church organist, and asked for his help in creating a new song for Christmas. Since Fr. Mohr was also an excellent musician, it's possible that he may have already imagined part of the melody. He gave Gruber a poem he had written two years earlier, while a curate in Mariapfarr, and suggested that it could be set to music for a guitar accompaniment with two solo voices and chorus. At that time, it was decided that the two men would sing the song with Mohr playing guitar and singing the melody and Gruber singing the bass part.
Returning to Oberndorf to prepare for the midnight service, Fr. Mohr was greeted by Gruber several hours later with the completed song. Gruber also served as organist and choirmaster in Oberndorf. It would be an easy rehearsal for the choir, since they would merely repeat (in four-part harmony) the last two phrases of each of the six verses.
As 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 the world. They were just trying to get through a difficult situation by providing music for Midnight Mass.
Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ, several times in subsequent years. While doing his work in St. Nicholas, he obtained a copy of the composition and took it home with him. Thus, the simple carol, began its journey around the world as a "Tyrolean Folk Song."
Two traveling families of folk singers from the Ziller Valley, similar to the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music fame, incorporated the song into their repertoire. According to the Leipziger Tageblatt, the Strassers sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. It was during this period, several musical notes were changed, and the carol evolved into the melody we know today. On another occasion, according to an historical plaque, the Rainer Family sang the Christmas carol before an audience which included Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. In the year 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, the Court Opera singer from Hannover, reported that by the 1840s, the carol was already well known in Lower Saxony. "In Berlin," he says, "the Royal Cathedral Choir popularized it especially. It became in fact the favorite Christmas carol of the artistically appreciative King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who used to have the Cathedral Choir sing it for him during the Christmas season each year."
When the song had become famous throughout Europe, the author was dead 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 two years ago 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."
The late Abbot Corbinian Hofmeister, O.S.B., of Metton Abbey, in Germany, provided an eloquent explanation for the carol's universal appeal.
"Mohr's Christmas joy flowed from heart and soul in captivating words; Gruber molded them into an exultant melody that immediately and ineluctably burst into song. That was their mutually shared moment of fortune. Two souls, religiously and artistically gifted, coalesced in a new genius, and created a masterpiece so seamless and perfectly homogeneous that many researchers ventured the opinion that only one person could have produced this masterpiece."
During his lifetime, Franz Xaver Gruber produced a number of orchestral arrangements of his composition. The original guitar arrangement is missing, but five other Gruber manuscripts exist. The manuscript by Joseph Mohr (ca.1820) is for guitar accompaniment and is probably the closest to the arrangement and melody sung at Midnight Mass in 1818.
Various Gruber and Mohr arrangements have been performed in concert in Volusia County for the past 10 years. Adventsingen, a holiday concert based on a half-century-old Salzburg program, is performed by an interfaith chorus and soloists at Our lady of Lourdes Church each December. The highlight of the annual Daytona Beach concert is the singing of what some have called the "world's most beautiful Christmas carol" following a special narration by Orlando television news anchor Claire Metz. The narration varies from year to year because there are so many facets to the story regarding the carol and its composers.
In Austria, interest in the song results in year-round tourist business for many locations connected with Silent Night and its creators.
St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, where the song was first sung in 1818, was torn down in the early part of this century. The church foundations had been weakened by the flooding of the nearby Salzach River. In its place is the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, and nearby one can visit the Silent Night Museum. The museum is located by the former home of the church sacristan where Joseph Mohr rented a room while he was assigned to the Oberndorf parish.
A few miles away is the tiny hamlet of Arnsdorf, where Franz Gruber lived as schoolteacher and church organist. Frau Ottilie Aigner, the town historian, gives tours through the still-operating school, and one can see the recently restored Baroque pipe organ Gruber played for Mass in Maria am Moesl Church adjacent to the school. Although Franz Gruber left Arnsdorf in 1829, not too much has changed. His desk remains in the same classroom and is still used by the current schoolteacher. On the second floor of the schoolhouse the rooms where Gruber lived and composed the melody for Mohr's Christmas carol can be visited. The centuries-old church boasts one modern addition an electronic carillon which plays the original Stille Nacht melody.
Later in his life, Gruber and his family moved to Hallein, now the site of the Franz Xaver Gruber Museum. It contains several furnished rooms in his former home along with outstanding exhibits dealing with the history of Silent Night, including Joseph Mohr's guitar. Gruber's grave is outside the home and is decorated with a Christmas tree in December.
Fr. Joseph Mohr's final resting place is a tiny Alpine ski resort, Wagrain. He was born into poverty in Salzburg in 1792 and died penniless in Wagrain in 1848, where he had been assigned as 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."
Many generations of the Mohr family lived in the Lungau region, in the southern part of the Province of Salzburg. The pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr is within walking distance of the former home of Joseph's grandfather. The climate is so invigorating and the Alpine air so clean, the town has become a major vacation destination for Europeans who want to get away from city life. A piece of land, once owned by one of Mohr's ancestors has been recently purchased and a Silent Night Museum is planned for the site. The pilgrimage church where Mohr celebrated Mass is undergoing the restoration of its centuries-old frescos.
The popularity of Silent Night could almost be termed a miracle when you look at the facts. The words were written by a modest curate. The music was composed by a musician who was not known outside his village. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere.
For further information concerning sites mentioned in this article, write: Salzburg State Board of Tourism, Postfach 1, A-5300 Hallwang bei Salzburg, Austria, Europe.
(Christmas historian Bill Egan, a retired Navy photojournalist and resident of Flagler Beach, Florida, writes for Year 'Round Christmas Magazine and provides Christmas research for Charles Osgood of "The Osgood File" on CBS Radio. He is the producer of the annual "Adventsingen" concert in Daytona Beach and lectures on Christmas topics throughout the Eastern U.S. He is heard nationally on "The Osgood File" each year on December 24. Bill has visited the various Stille Nacht locations to research the history of the world famous carol for the Austrian National Tourist Office (ANTO) and Austrian Information. Gabriele Wolf of ANTO Media Relations says that Bill Egan is the foremost Silent Night scholar in the U.S. and the Daytona Beach News-Journal says that he is one of the world's leading experts on the origins of the carol.)
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