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Silent Night

How a Christmas carol became a global hit
 

Author: Florian Nussbaumer

Not far from the city of Salzburg lies the little town of Oberndorf - a magnet that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Here, amid the gentle hills, stands the Silent Night Chapel - on exactly the same spot where in 1818 the Christmas hymn "Silent Night" rang out for the first time at the St. Nicholas parish church.

The composer Franz Xaver Gruber himself wrote an account of the carol’s origins – at the request of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who insisted on having it sung for him every Christmas. He was surprised to learn the wonderful melody had not been written by the brother of the famous composer Joseph Haydn but by a humble teacher.
 

Mariapfarr

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Kirche Mariapfarr © Stille Nacht GesellschaftKirche Mariapfarr © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft

Mariapfarr: longing for Peace and Comfort
It all began in the depths of winter 1816, a time of great suffering and hardship. 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 of Lungau, to write a poem. In six verses he told the Christmas story as it had taken place one "Silent Night". A short time later, thanks to a series of happy coincidences, the poem was to become a global sensation.


Arnsdorf: an organist and teacher
At this time, a primary school teacher named Franz Xaver Gruber was living in Arnsdorf. As many of the children in the village had to work on the farm with their parents, he only had a small number of pupils to teach, leaving him plenty of time to work as a sacristan and organist in the neighbouring village of Oberndorf. It was here that he met the priest Joseph Mohr. The priest seems to have been impressed by Franz Xaver Gruber’s musical talent and on 24 December 1818 asked him to set a poem he had written to music. Gruber wrote the melody on the very same day.

Silent Night Museum

  • Silent Night Museum in the Arnsdorf Primary School © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft Silent Night Museum in the Arnsdorf Primary School © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft

Oberndorf and the missing organ
As the church in Oberndorf was not yet fully furnished, Gruber was unable to write the melody for organ accompaniment. Instead he wrote a composition for two solo voices accompanied by a guitar. 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.

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. He took it back to his own village of Fügen in the Zillertal Valley in Tirol, where within a very short time it had won the hearts of all who heard it.

Silent Night music score

  • Original Silent Night autograph by Franz X Gruber for organ and 2 violins, 1845 © Museum Hallein Original Silent Night autograph by Franz X Gruber for organ and 2 violins, 1845 © Museum Hallein

Fügen in Zillertal: the beginning of a journey around the world
It is astonishing that at a time when novelties spread only very slowly "Silent Night, Holy Night" found its way out of the remote Zillertal Valley and into the wide world as quickly as it did. 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, we do have documentary evidence that the song was performed by the Strasser family in Leipzig.

On 15 December 1832 the Leipziger Tagblatt wrote, “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.

A museum for a song

  • The Strasser family's music sheet © Museum in der Widumspfiste Fügen The Strasser family's music sheet © Museum in der Widumspfiste Fügen
  • The Rainer siblings in front of the Trinity Church in New York, 1839 © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft The Rainer siblings in front of the Trinity Church in New York, 1839 © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft
  • The organ builder Karl Mauracher from Fügen © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft The organ builder Karl Mauracher from Fügen © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft
  • The Schagler hut in Mariapfarr, where the Father Joseph Mohrs lived © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft The Schagler hut in Mariapfarr, where the Father Joseph Mohrs lived © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft
  • Documentation about Rainer-Sängern in the Fügen museum of local history © Museum in der Widumspfiste Documentation about Rainer-Sängern in the Fügen museum of local history © Museum in der Widumspfiste

New York and the rest of the world
In 1839 the Rainer family of singers from Tirol set off on a 4-year tour of America and in the same year "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 many subsequent tours throughout Europe and Asia Minor, the singers always had "Silent Night" in their luggage. In this way, the song’s fame gradually spread throughout the world, even where the Rainer singers never performed: missionaries 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. “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.
 

  • Every year on 24th December the Silent Night commemorative service in Oberndorf is broadcast online as a live audio stream?
  • There are ten Silent Night museums in Austria?
  • The “Strasserhäusl“ is still standing in the Zillertal Valley? It was from here that the Strasser family carried the song out into the world.
  • There's a historical reenactment of the carol's creation in Franz Xaver Gruber’s birthplace, Hochburg an der Ach?
     
  • Silent Night has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects?
     
  • Bing Crosby’s 1935 recording of the carol sold some 10 million copies?
  • You can listen to 940 different recordings of Silent Night at the local history museum in Fügen? Incidentally, the museum’s record collection has more than 500 copies.
  • In Franz Xaver Gruber's birth town there is a peace trail which symbolises unity of mankind throughout the entire world in the same way that "Silent Night" does?

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