The Story Behind a Most Loved Carol
...all is calm, all is bright.
The Christmas Eve scene of 1818 was picture perfect in the Austrian Alpine Tyrolian town of Oberndorf. Crystalline snow on trees, chalets and elegantly sculpted mountains; and the pretty new Church of aptly named Saint Nicholas completed the scene. Relative peace had come upon the land now that the Napoleonic threat had ended a few years earlier. The scene is almost the same today if one looks over the "Old City."
Father Joseph Mohr had just been ordained three years earlier from the seminary in nearby Salzburg -- also his birthplace -- that blessed event interestingly on December 11, 1792. He grew up in squalor living with his knitter mother Anna Schoiber and very old grandmother. His father, Franz Joseph Mohr, one of the archbishop's musketeers abandoned the family. However, young Joseph was god-fathered by the resident executioner, Franz Joseph Wohlmuth. Fortunately he found a protector in the person of the Cathedral choirmaster, Johann Nepomuk Hiernle. He helped the youngster's potential become realized by sending him to the well-known and respected Kremsmunster school. He served as a musician for the Cathedral while a student.
The legendary part of the story - from the 20th century --that endures today which claims that the organ was not working, maybe even because mice ate the bellows, has not been proven. But it was fact that they needed to have something for their Christmas Eve service that night. He had written a poem, "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" ("Silent Night! Holy Night!") a couple of years earlier while working as curate at a little church at Mariapfarr, a place near where he had a reunion with his grandfather. Also a little later around that time he had spent some time recuperating from an illness in a Salzburg hospital and it is where he met the Church verger, Franz Xaver Gruber. 1817 was additionally the year he became assistant pastor at St. Nicholas Church. Franz Gruber became his organist at St. Nick's, and Fr. Joseph was going to ask him to write some music suitable to accompany his poem by guitar.
Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light.
With the angels let us sing,
Allelula to our King.
Christ the Saviour is born;
Christ the Saviour is born.
Indeed, Gruber and Mohr get together, and they penned and sang the words and music for the first time: a nativity of music sublime.
Not too many days later, organ builder Karl Mauracher came by the church (and of course one part of the story was he was there to see what was wrong with organ), he picked up the song, calling it "Tiroler Volkslied" and showed it to the Rainer and Strasser families. The glove-making Strassers of the Ziller Valley used the tune via their children, kind of like the century later Trappe family, as promotion in various Alpine festivals. The carol now made it on the 'map.' Though some words had been changed in some of these various incarnations, another rumor that the original writers had lost or could not remember the words is not true. Manuscripts were found, and there is the 1855 Gruber arrangement for soloists, choir and organ freely available on the internet.
Though the Strasser family's famed presentation of this song in the winter wonderland settings was even finally shown to the Emperor Franz I's family, Father Joseph died twenty days shy of exactly thirty years of after he first played the song with his friend, Franz Gruber. Gruber continued as a teacher and choirmaster and lived to be 76 years old before dying in 1863.
After many printings and publications in many hymnbooks, a highlight for the song came on Christmas Eve of 1918 when the centenary celebration featured Franz Gruber's grandson playing the hymn on guitar.
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth;
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
After "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" was sung by German-Americans, it finally appeared for Sunday Schools in its English form we see today as "Silent Night" in 1863.