by Curt Kovener
“Silent Night,” which has been translated into nearly 300 languages, has become an anchor for Christmas celebrations throughout the world. Its lullaby-like melody and simple message of heavenly peace can be heard from small town street corners in mid-America to magnificent cathedrals in Europe and from outdoor candlelight concerts in Australia to palm thatched huts in northern Peru.
Although we may never know the exact circumstances and emotions which inspired Joseph Mohr to write his poem, we do know that he wrote the words in 1816. At that time he was assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, an Alpine village near the home of his grandfather in the southern part of the province of Salzburg, Austria.
We hear many fairytales concerning the composition of what has become the world’s best loved Christmas carol. These include silly stories about mice eating the bellows of the organ and Fr. Mohr being forced to quickly compose some words for a new carol so there could be music at Midnight Mass.
Did mice really chew the organ bellows and thus prevent it from working on Christmas Eve in 1818? Probably not. Hungry mice were an ongoing problem in the harsh winter environment of an unheated church and repairs could be easily made to organ bellows. A Franz Gruber sketch of mice nibbling the organ bellows has been published in several books.
Some historians feel that the constant flooding of the Salzach River in Oberndorf, Austria caused rust and mildew in the organ. Others think that Joseph Mohr simply wanted a new song for the Christmas service.
Although the words were written by the poet-priest-musician, Joseph Mohr, in 1816, it was not until the music was added by Franz Xaver Gruber on December 24, 1818, that “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” became a gift to all mankind. Although some fables claim that it was set aside and forgotten. Creators, Joseph Mohr’s guitar arrangement, penned around 1820, and several Franz Gruber arrangements (through 1855) can be seen at various museums in Austria.
The popularity of “Silent Night” can almost be termed “miraculous.” After all, the words were written by a modest curate and the music composed by a musician hardly known outside the province where he resided. There was no celebrity to sing at the world premiere and no mass-communication systems existed to spread the fame of the carol. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat or whatever the latest app is since I wrote this. However, its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of Christmas-celebrating people everywhere.
The original church of St. Nicholas, in Oberndorf where “Stille Nacht” was first heard in 1818, was torn down in the early part of the 1900’s after sustaining damage from the flooding of the nearby Salzach. The Silent Night Chapel was erected on the spot in front of the main altar where Gruber and Mohr by it stood with the choir to introduce the six-stanza carol. In a higher section of Oberndorf, another church was built and the original pulpit and altars from the old church were moved there. Every Christmas at Midnight Mass, singers stand in front of the same altars and recreate the moment when the song heard ’round the world was first performed over 200 years ago.