Silent Night enchants listeners for the first time
Christmas Eve, 1818. As the congregation of St Nicholas’s in Oberndorf was making its way through the snow to attend mass, inside the church, two men were putting the final touches to a carol that they had written that very day. Now they were planning to perform it for the first time.
Father Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest, would sing the tenor solo and provide accompaniment on the guitar. Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher and the church’s organist, would sing bass, with the choir joining in at the end of each verse. Restrained and reflective, Silent Night was the name of their new addition to the festive repertoire.
Recent years had been tough for the people of Oberndorf, a small town situated on the Salzach river a few miles north of Salzburg. Battered and bruised during the Napoleonic Wars, its spirits were scarcely lifted by 1816’s Congress of Vienna which, in re-drawing the map of Europe, ran the new border between Bavaria and the Hapsburg Empire along the Salzach, ruthlessly splitting the town right down the middle. Telling of a brotherly embrace between people across the world, the words of Silent Night ’s fourth verse must have struck a chord with those gathered at the church.
As with many a good festive story, the narrative of how Silent Night came into being has been embellished and romanticised over time. What we can be fairly sure of is that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 – six verses in all, though just three are usually sung today. And Gruber himself, in a written account from several years later, says that
Mohr indeed showed him the text on Christmas Eve 1818, asking if he might be able to set it to music. Gruber got to
work in double-quick time, presenting Mohr with his e orts just hours later.
Why the last-minute dash? Was it because Mohr had returned from a trip to discover that mice had caused major damage to the church organ, rendering it unplayable? It’s a nice tale, though Gruber doesn’t confirm it. He does, however, tell us that an organ repairer, Carl Maraucher, later got hold of the score of Silent Night while he was working on St Nicholas church’s malfunctioning instrument. Maraucher introduced it to audiences in Austria’s Tyrol region, from where it was taken up by two famous Austrian singing families, the Rainers and the Strassers, who performed it on tour.
By 1914, Silent Night was so familiar across the globe that, when German soldiers sang it in the World War I trenches, their British counterparts were able to respond in kind. In more peaceful times, singers from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey and innumerable festive film scores have helped it to retain its spot as arguably the most popular carol ever written.
As for Mohr and Gruber, they have not been entirely forgotten – even if, for a while, claims were made that Silent Night was the handiwork of Mozart, or possibly Haydn. Head to Oberndorf today, and you will find the Silent Night Museum and the Silent Night Chapel, the latter built in 1937 to provide a fitting tribute a er St Nicholas church had fallen victim to regular Salzach floods in the late 19th century. Commemorated in stained glass, complete with quill and guitar, the priest and organist continue to welcome visitors, 200 years a er their carol enchanted those who first heard it.
Did Mohr return from a trip to discover that mice had caused damage to the organ?
Heavenly peace: Oberndorf’s Silent Night Chapel, where (right) Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr take pride of place; (below right) Gruber’s score