Silent Night: The Song Heard 'Round the World

by Bill Egan

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 in four-part harmony. Now translated into hundreds of languages, untold millions sing it every December from small chapels in the Andes to great cathedrals in Rome.

Today, books, films and Internet sites are filled with fanciful tales purporting to tell the history of "Silent Night." Some tell of mice eating the bellows of the organ, creating the necessity for the hymn to be accompanied by a guitar. Others claim that Joseph Mohr was forced to write the words to a new carol in haste since the organ would not play. In some books, you may read claims that "Silent Night" was sung on Christmas Eve in 1818 and then forgotten by its creators. Of course, the latter stories are easily discounted by manuscript arrangements of the carol by both Mohr and Gruber that were produced at various times between 1820 and 1855.

In this age of tabloid journalism, it's not surprising that some feel it necessary to invent frivolous anecdotes and create fables for a story that is quite beautiful in its simplicity.

Joseph Mohr wrote the German-language words for the original six stanzas of the carol we know as 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.

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. Perhaps, while performing his work at St. Nicholas Church, he familiarized himself with a manuscript of the composition and felt it would be nice to share it with musicians in his home area.

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. Thus, the simple carol began its journey around the world.

One of the groups, the Rainer family, sang the Christmas carol in 1822 before an audience that included Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

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.

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 manuscript 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 villages where he lived and taught, composed the music. There was no celebrity to sing at its world premiere. Yet its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, becoming an anchor for Christmas celebrations throughout the world.