‘Silent Night’ turns 200

Silent night

The hills around Salzburg are alive, we hear, “alive with the sound of music.”

Young and old, the people sing and hum and strum.

The water in the brooks laughs as it trips and falls downstream.

Church chimes sigh with the breeze.

This music, we also hear, has been sung for 1,000 years.

Maybe.

But one song—probably the most famous—is celebrating only 200 years.

On Christmas Eve 1818, in the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf near Salzburg, “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) was sung for the first time.

The words to “Silent Night” were the work of the Rev Joseph Mohr, a young priest in Oberndorf.

He wrote them in 1816 as a reflection on peace after a summer of violence in Salzburg.

On Christmas Eve two years later, he asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolteacher in the neighboring town of Arnsdorf and also the organist in Oberndorf, to set his words to music.

Gruber did so, and together that evening at Christmas Eve Mass, the two performed “Silent Night” for the gathered faithful, Mohr singing and Gruber playing the guitar, since the church organ was not working.

“Silent Night” was an immediate sensation.

The story of the carol’s origin was lost for a couple of decades, even as Tyrolean choristers performed it across Europe.

In Berlin, people tried to trace its origin.

In 1854, the Royal Hofkapelle (court orchestra) in Berlin contacted the Archabbey of St. Peter’s in Salzburg to research the composer of the carol.

It was thought the composer might have been Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806), Joseph Haydn’s younger brother.

Felix Gruber, Franz Xaver Gruber’s son, was a boy chorister in St Peter’s at this time.

He directed the query to his father.

This made Franz Xaver Gruber aware of the importance of the carol, and he wrote a statement about it, “Authentic Origination of the Composition of the Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night’,” and sent it to Berlin.

The Stille Nacht Museum in Hallein, near Salzburg, in the house where Franz Xaver Gruber lived for 28 years, keeps two drafts of this letter, thus documenting the creation of the carol in Salzburg as well.

The carol has been translated into some 300 languages. The first English translation appeared in New York City in 1851. Continue reading

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