There’s an interesting story behind the creation of Silent Night, Holy Night, celebrated each Christmas Eve in the tiny chapel in the Austrian Alps where it was first performed exactly 200 years ago, on Christmas Eve 1818.
The village is Oberndorf, near Salzburg. The church, appropriately, is known as the St. Nicholas parish church.
Here’s the story.
A poem set to music
It began in the winter 1816, a time of great suffering and hardship in Europe. For decades, Europe had been ravaged by the Napoleonic Wars and people had a deep longing for peace and comfort.
It must have been this longing that inspired Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest in Mariapfarr, a small village in the Salzburg region, to write a poem. In six verses he told the Christmas story as it had taken place one “Silent Night”.
A primary school teacher named Franz Xaver Gruber was living nearby in the neighboring village of Arnsdorf. Gruber was the organist for the church in Oberndorf, where he met the priest Joseph Mohr who had written the poem.
The priest seems to have been impressed by Franz Xaver Gruber’s musical talent, and on Christmas Eve, 1818 asked him to set a poem he had written to music. Gruber wrote the melody on the very same day.
As the church in Oberndorf was not yet fully furnished, Gruber was unable to write the melody for organ accompaniment.
So he wrote a composition for two solo voices accompanied by a guitar instead. The featured photo is the original score, now in the Keltenmuseum Hallein in Austria.
When midnight mass had finished, the two men sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” for the very first time. Joseph Mohr played the guitar. It is not known whether the congregation liked the carol. It might even have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for the missing organ.
Silent Night and the Missing Organ
A few weeks later, the well-known Tirolean organ-builder Karl Mauracher was brought in to plan it.
The unique quality of the Christmas carol immediately attracted his attention, and he took it back to his own village, Fügen, where he performed it.
As the legend goes, within a very short time it had won the hearts of all who heard it, and its popularity began spreading out of the remote and isolated Tyrolean valleys to the rest of the world.
In those days, Tirol was home to a large number of merchant families who also gave concerts while on their travels. The Rainer family from Fügen and the Strassers from Laimach in particular were well known as travelling choirs in the 1820s.
Whether they included “Silent Night” in their repertoire from the very beginning is not known. However, Austrian historians know that the song was performed by the Strasser family in Leipzig, Germany, a city with a strong operatic tradition.
The newspaper Leipziger Tagblatt (translates to Daily Newspaper) reported on Dec. 16, 1832 that, “The singers kindly fulfilled the (…) wish that they perform the lovely Christmas carol Silent Night, Holy Night.” They sang the song “so delightfully” that the hall “resounded with tumultuous applause”.
Soon afterwards, “Silent Night” was published for the first time in a music book entitled Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs
New York and the rest of the world
In 1839, the Rainer family of singers from Tirol set off on a four-year tour of America, and “Silent Night” was heard in New York for the first time.
The carol then travelled to New Orleans, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
On their subsequent tours throughout Europe and Asia, the singers always had “Silent Night” in their luggage, performing it often.
So the song’s fame spread throughout the world, including where the Rainer singers never performed, including via missionaries who took it to the most remote corners of Africa and Asia.
UNESCO World Heritage
Wherever Christmas is celebrated today, “Silent Night” moves people’s hearts and is a symbol of peace in the world. It’s been translated and sung in dozens of languages.
“Po Fanau! Po Manu!” are the words in Samoan, “Oidhche Shàmhach” in Scottish Gaelic and “Đêm thánh vô cùng” in Vietnamese.
UNESCO also recognised its importance as a vital cultural treasure and in 2011 it was placed on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria.
All from a poem by a village priest and a tune by a village teacher.
Every year on 24th December the Silent Night commemorative service in Oberndorf is broadcast online as a live audio stream
Thanks to the Austrian National Tourist Office for this background story and images.