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“Silent Night” is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2018. Over the years all sorts of legends have grown up surrounding the world-famous Christmas carol.
Only rarely has a cultural asset become so firmly established throughout the world as has the composition “Silent Night”. Travelling groups of musicians and missionaries ensured that the song became known in even the most remote corners of the earth. It is no wonder that over time all kinds of stories emerged concerning the people, places and circumstances relating to the song – many of which were quite fanciful.
The magical aspect of fables and legends is the possibility that they do, in fact, contain a small kernel of truth, which makes speculation even more tantalising. Some legends – such as that of the hungry mouse that munched on the Oberndorf organ – still persist. Perhaps because they are simply nice stories? Others, however, are based on simple ignorance. There continues to be much research conducted into the genesis and dissemination of the song, and there is always new information coming to light. Here are some of the stories – some true and some not – surrounding “Silent Night”.
Joseph Mohr wrote the words to “Silent Night” in 1816 and Franz Xaver Gruber added the music in 1818. But why was the song arranged for two solo voices and choir accompanied by guitar? After all, the guitar at that time was seen as more of a coarse “pub” instrument and not suitable for use in church.
The imaginative explanation is the story about the mouse. The poor creature was supposedly so hungry that it chewed through the bellows of the Oberndorf church organ. Which is why the instrument was unplayable on Christmas Eve and a guitar had to be substituted. False: The truth is that the organ was indeed playable but in need of repair. The following year the organ builder Carl Mauracher came to Oberndorf from the Zillertal to inspect the instrument. Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber could also have decided ahead of time to arrange the song to be sung with guitar accompaniment because they wanted to sing it directly in front of the nativity scene immediately following the church service.
Joseph Mohr’s first position as a young priest was in Hintersee, SalzburgerLand. The assistant priest was known for his compassion and helpfulness and always had an open ear and heart for the needy townspeople.
No fewer than 272 inhabitants of Hintersee supplemented their income at the time through illegal hunting. Even today the story is told that Mohr purchased meat from poachers in order to donate it to poor families with many children. Where the vicar got the money for the “forbidden” meat is unclear, as he scarcely owned anything himself. It has been suggested that he perhaps “borrowed” the money from the offering bag. Be that as it may, the story has it that Mohr was caught and reported to the police, but he never had to serve a prison sentence.
Was “Silent Night” composed by Michael Haydn?
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The names of the authors of “Silent Night” – Joseph Mohr as lyricist and Franz Xaver Gruber as composer – were for many years buried in oblivion. In order to determine the true authorship of the song, in 1854 the Royal Chapel Choir in Berlin sent a formal enquiry to the Archabbey St. Peter in Salzburg. It was suspected that the actual composer was Michael Haydn, who had close ties to St. Peter. The enquiry was presumably sent from Berlin to Franz Xaver Gruber in Hallein by way of Gruber’s son, who at the time was a choir boy at St. Peter.
Gruber subsequently wrote a letter entitled “Authentic Origins of the Composition of the Christmas Song Silent Night! Holy Night!”. In this document, Gruber describes how the song came to be written: In 1816 the priest Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics in the form of a poem. Two years later in Oberndorf he made the acquaintance of Joseph Gruber, who was working there as a musician. In the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1818, Gruber composed the melody and following the Christmas mass that evening the two of them gave the premiere performance of “Silent Night”.
Should “Silent Night” be sung only on December 24th?
As is usually the case with rituals, most customs have their strict rules. There are various views about when the “correct” time is to sing “Silent Night”. Even people who are concerned with traditional customs do not always agree.
In most countries and cultures, “Silent Night” can be heard throughout the entire pre-Christmas season coming from the radio, and people are constantly singing or humming the melody. In Alpine regions, however, some people still follow the unwritten rule that “Silent Night” is to be sung only on December 24th.
The mortal remains of Joseph Mohr were buried at the cemetery in Wagrain – but not his skull. How did this happen? During his entire lifetime Mohr resisted having portraits done of him, which is why not a single picture of Mohr exists. In 1912 the sculptor and priest Joseph Mühlbacher wanted to create a memorial to Mohr and Gruber, for which he did, in fact have Mohr’s skull exhumed.
The grave in Wagrain was located and the skull removed. After the memorial was completed, however, the skull was not returned to the Wagrain cemetery. It was stored until the construction of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf, where it was then embedded in the wall. At the foot of the hill where the Silent Night Chapel stands is a cast of Mühlbacher’s relief. However, even this likeness of Mohr presumably bears little resemblance to him: in 1912 the technology was not advanced to the point that a realistic reconstruction of the skull would have been possible.
The top “Silent Night" events of 2018
Opening of the Silent Night Museum Hallein:
The world-famous Silent Night Museum will reopen in 2018 (Attention: It is closed until then!).