Si­lent Night en­chants lis­ten­ers for the first time

BBC Music Magazine - - Thefullscore -

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

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