Stille Nacht--Dresden Choir.
This morning at 10:45 the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Choir will present its annual winter holiday concert in McHenry. This year the theme is A Sharing of Music and Poetry. The choir under the direction of Cassandra Vohs-Demann and accompanied by Billy Seger will hit all the seasonal notes including secular favorites, Chanukah, Solstice, and of course Advent and Christmas carols interspersed with original poetry read by the Congregation’s several bards. It promises to be a magical occasion.
My poem Let Us Be That Stable will be pared with the most beloved of all carols, Silent Night.
Two hundred and one years ago 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. It has been recorded by choirs, orchestras, and solo musicians in every possible genre but Bing Crosby’s 1935 version is the bestselling solo rendition 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.
Mohr was in need of a song for his Christmas Eve mass, but the church organ was damaged by a flood. 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.
Stille Nacht composer Franz Gruber.
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.
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 confirming 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.
Singing Stille Nacht and Silent Night drew British and German enemies out of the trenches for the legendary 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 (soccer). 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 feature a German choral rendition by the Dresden Choir.
A Renaissance triparch altar painting of the Nativity.
My poem Let Us Be That Stable was inspired by traditional nativity scenes in art and family crèches. It was first read at a Christmas Eve service at the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock more than 20 years ago and was included in my 2004 collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart. It is my most widely reproduced poem and has frequently been used in Unitarian Universalist and other worships settings since.
Let Us Be That Stable
Today, let us be that stable
Let us be the place
that welcomes at last
the weary and rejected,
the pilgrim stranger,
the coming life.
Let not the frigid winds that pierce
our inadequate walls,
or our mildewed hay,
or the fetid leavings of our cattle
shame us from our beckoning.
Let our outstretched arms
be a manger
so that the infant hope,
swaddled in love,
may have a place to lie.
Let a cold beacon
shine down upon us
from a solstice sky
to guide to us
the seekers who will come.
Let the lowly Shepard
and all who abide
in the fields of their labors
lay down their crooks
and come to us.
Let the seers, sages, and potentates
of every land
traverse the shifting dunes
the rushing rivers,
and the stony crags
to seek our rude frame.
Let herdsmen and high lords
under our thatched roof
to lay their gifts
Today, let us be that stable.