It was Christmas Eve in 1818 and the young priest Joseph Mohr was despondent. The organ in St. Nikola Church where he was serving in the Austrian village of Oberndorf near Salzburg was broken.
The steepled church sat on the banks of a sharp bend in the Salzach River, and flooding had damaged the organ — though some stories say the instrument wasn’t working because mice had gnawed the leather bellows.
What could Father Mohr do? He needed to play at least one piece of music at Christmas Mass, which was just hours away.
Then he remembered a poem he’d written two years earlier in the town of Mariapfarr and had an idea.
In the brisk winter afternoon air, with a copy of the poem in his pocket he walked the 3 kilometers to see his friend Franz Xaver Gruber in the neighboring village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg.
Franz was a schoolteacher, church choirmaster and organist.
The priest told him about the problem and showed him the poem.
Could he put some music to the lyrics?
With quill pen and ink, Franz sat down. As the oil lamp flickered, he began jotting musical notes on paper to be played on a guitar.
Several hours later, the musical composition was finished.
It was time for midnight Mass. The simple melody would just have to do.
Father Mohr named it Stille Nacht — German for “Silent Night.”
The two men donned their overcoats and quickly headed for the little church.
Before the small congregation that Christmas Eve, they both sang “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…” while Father Mohr played his guitar — the gentle music drifting out into the crystalline winter night, faintly echoing in the nearby alpine hills.
There was something reassuring about Stille Nacht. It was born at a time when much of Europe was still suffering while the 16-year Napoleonic Wars were finally coming to an end.
Adding to the anguish, two years before that Christmas Mass, crops had failed and there was famine in “the year without summer.”
The people were ready for a spiritual renewal.
That night, villagers in that little Austrian town had one as they listened to the soft music and reassuring words of peace, faith, love, hope and the brotherhood of nations.
Silent Night’s journey to worldwide fame began in Salzburg in 1792 with the birth of Joseph (Josef) Franz Mohr, the illegitimate child of an embroiderer mother and a deserter mercenary father who abandoned the mother before Joseph was born.
Baptism records show a Josef Wohlmuth becoming the newborn boy’s godfather. He was Salzburg’s last official executioner, and he was trying to change his negative reputation by volunteering to godfather illegitimate children.
He didn’t bother to attend the baptism.
At first, it was a hardscrabble life for the mother and boy, but Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, vicar and music leader at Salzburg Cathedral, took young Joseph under his wing, giving him an education and encouraging him to pursue music.
The youngster showed promise. He became a choirboy and violinist both in the University Church and the Benedictine monastery church of St. Peter (founded in 696 A.D.) in Salzburg.
Around age 19, he received special Papal dispensation for his illegitimacy and was allowed to study for the priesthood — which he attained in 1815.
His first assignment was to assist the priest in the Austrian village of Ramsau near Berchtesgaden and later in Mariapfarr.
Father Mohr had a merry personality and was well-liked, but his lack of gravitas apparently didn’t please his superiors. They accused him of singing “uplifting songs” and “joking around with members of the opposite sex.”
Accordingly, he was shuffled from one church to another.
Between 1816 and 1817, he wrote the poem that later became the lyrics for Stille Nacht. The following year, he was appointed assistant priest at St. Nikola Church in Oberndorf, where he met Franz Gruber from neighboring Arnsdorf — the two becoming lifelong friends.
Conrad Franz Xaver Gruber was born into a poor weaver family in 1787. As a youngster, his passion was music and his teacher saw potential in the boy. He finished his schooling and at age 20 was appointed to his first position as teacher, sexton and organist in Arnsdorf.
After Silent Night was first performed, Franz Gruber began sharing the song in towns around Oberndorf.
Several years later, Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley where Oberndorf is located, was working on the organ at St. Nikola’s and acquired a copy of Stille Nacht. He took it home with him.
He showed the song to two touring families — the Strassers and the Rainers.
They loved it.
The Strasser family were glove makers and sold them in markets at Christmas time across Europe — using Stille Nacht in their vendor stalls to boost sales.
Musical farmer families quickly picked up on the song and its fame began to spread throughout Europe.
Ludwig Rainer was one of Austria’s most famous singers. His family was much like the Von Trappes in the movie “The Sound of Music.”
The Rainers performed Stille Nacht in front of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria, the Kaiser, Queen Victoria and finally in 1839 — in America.
That same year in the tiny town of Wagrain, now a ski resort, Father Mohr finally became vicar of a church.
It would be his final posting.
In December 1848, Father Mohr became snowbound and suffered exposure after administering Last Rites to a dying parishioner.
He died soon after from a lung infection — a week before his 56th birthday — as Europe was once again charging into violence amid political and social turmoil.
He never got to see Silent Night become one of the world’s most famous songs, now sung in more than 300 languages and dialects, touching hearts everywhere.
The gentle Austrian priest gave away most of his salary and devoted his life to teaching children and caring for the elderly.
Joseph Mohr School in Wagrain is just yards away from his gravesite.
The “Priest of the Poor” died penniless, leaving only the beloved guitar that later was acquired by his dear friend Franz Gruber’s family, and now is in the Silent Night Museum in Mariapfarr.
Gruber died in 1863, living long enough to witness the incredible rise in popularity of the iconic Christmas carol.
By Christmas of 1914, more than a million soldiers had already died or been wounded in World War I. But on that particular Christmas Eve, a strange thing happened:
The shooting stopped and suddenly all was quiet on the Western Front. Then small lit-up Christmas trees started appearing on the top of the trenches on both Allied and German sides.
Putting weapons and helmets aside, the voices of men singing Silent Night in English, French and German drifted across the battlefield in the crisp night air, and for a short time there was peace on Earth.
Similar moments happened elsewhere as well — in some places combatants sharing cigarettes and other simple gifts, kicking a soccer ball and exchanging friendly handshakes.
Then the clouds of war gathered again. Singing stopped and commanders prohibited the fraternizing — “punishable by death.”
After World War I, the advent of wireless broadcasting helped spread Silent Night even wider.
In America, singing Silent Night as a Christmas tradition began to accelerate in those early radio days, especially after Austrian-American opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) sang it on the air.
Then came Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Placido Domingo and countless others.
After Germany took Austria in 1938, Austrian philosopher and economist Leopold Kohr from Oberndorf, where Silent Night was born, used the lyrics to preach peace and goodwill on Earth.
He managed to flee his homeland and come to America, where he continued to spread that message until well into the 1950s.
“Oberndorf is only a small village in Austria, but it is my village,” he said. “And this is why I often like to think of it. In the distance rise the mighty chains of the Alps to their majestic height. And the melody will float out again from the village which created it to the world to which it belongs…”
For 200 years Silent Night has been regarded as a Christmas message for world peace.
Merry Christmas everyone!
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‘Stille Nacht’ ‘Silent Night’
Deutsch English (literal translation)
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Silent night, holy night
Alles schläft, einsam wacht everyone sleeps; alone watches
Nur das traute heilige Paar only the beloved, holy couple
Holder Knab im lockigen Haar, blessed boy in curly hair,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh! sleep in heavenly peace
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh! sleep in heavenly peace.
“This last line of text is sung twice to music respectively higher and lower in pitch than the rest of the tune, emphasizing its special rhetorical force: exultation followed by affirmation. Any possible irony we might have in singing about a silent night is averted by the special character of the melody as a whole. It has the contours and style of a lullaby, of a kind a mother might well sing to comfort and woo a baby to sleep.”
— Peter Tregear, The Conversation
Notes for musicians…
In 1859, the Episcopalian bishop John Freeman Young published the English translation, most popular today. Young’s version is a sprightly, dancelike tune in 6/8 time, as opposed to the slow, meditative lullaby, differing only slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original.
Coming to America…
In 1839, when Silent Night was first heard in the U.S., it was performed by a touring Austrian choir on Christmas Eve in front of the tomb of Alexander Hamilton in New York City’s Trinity Churchyard. It was years later before it was translated into English. In Austria, Stille Nacht is considered a national treasure and traditionally is not to be played publicly before Christmas Eve.
Listen to Silent Night…
Hear opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing Silent Night in 1908, followed by Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Natalie Cole on YouTube:
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Community History Popcorn stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.