Two hundred years ago tonight Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht was first performed at St. Nicholas parish church in the village Oberndorf on the Salzach River in the Austrian Empire. Today Silent Night is by far the most popular traditional Christmas carol in the English speaking world, and has been translated from the original German into more than 140 languages. Tonight it will be reverently sung as the climax of innumerable candle light Christmas Eve services. It has been recorded by choirs, orchestras, and solo musicians in every possible genre but Bing Crosby’s 1935 version is the third bestselling recording of all time.
A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote a poem in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region. Two years later he had been posted as parish priest to the Oberndorf. Circumstances of the creation of the song are hazy but the commonly told story goes like this.
|The Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf is now a popular destination of Christmas tours of Austria.|
Mohr was in need of a song for his Christmas Eve mass, but the Church organ was damaged by river. He needed something simple that could be sung to his guitar. He thought of his poem and asked his organist Franz Xaver Gruber to set it to music. The result was a lovely, simple tune that was easy to sing and was more of a lullaby to the infant Jesus than the triumphant announcement carols commonly sung on Christmas Eve.
The song charmed Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who serviced the instrument at the Oberndorf church, who copied the song and introduced it to two travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers who were singing it in their shows in 1819. The Rainers once performed the song for audience that included Emperor Franz I of Austria and Czar Alexander I of Russia. They also introduced the song to America in an 1839 concert in New York City.
The first edition of the song was published by Friese in 1833 in a collection of Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs.
|Composer Franz Gruber.|
The song was already beloved in the German speaking countries and was spreading across Europe. Although Gruber was generally acknowledged as composer some people could not believe it could have been written by such a rustic provincial and attributed it variously to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. Mohr’s role as lyricist was largely forgotten outside stories told around Oberndorf. But in 1995 a manuscript by Gruber dating to around 1820 was discovered and authenticated confirmed Mohr as the author.
In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young of Trinity Church in New York City, wrote and published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr's original six verses. His version of the melody varied slightly from Gruber’s original. Soon the song was as popular in English speaking countries as it was in German.
|Stille Nacht/Silent Night drew enemies from their trenches in the famous Christmas Truce of 1914.|
In 1914 in the first months of World War I British and German troops facing each other in France heard each other sing the carol in their own trenches and were drawn to meet and fraternize in no man’s land. For two days troops mingled, sang, ate together, exchanged small gifts including Christmas trees from the Germans, and even played games of football. The famous Christmas Truce ended when the high commands on both sides declared it was mutiny and threatened to shoot troops who did not return to belligerence.
Today we are preserving the simplicity of the original German song accompanied by guitar by featuring a version by the Austrian folk musicians the Kröll Family Singers, sisters Ida, Gerlinde, and Elisabeth.