How "Silent Night" became a global hit
The places where the world-famous Christmas carol comes from remain steeped in memories and history today.
The song is heard for the first time. Not far from the city of Salzburg lies the small town of Oberndorf. Here, amidst the gently rolling hills, stands the Silent Night Chapel – the historic location where in 1818, in the Church of St. Nicholas, the Christmas carol “Silent Night” was sung for the first time. How the song came into being was documented by the composer Franz Xaver Gruber himself in a letter.
Anyone who visits Oberndorf today quickly senses the significance of this place: in the “Silent Night District” with the Silent Night Museum and Silent Night Chapel, everything revolves around the world-famous Christmas carol. The Church of St. Nicholas was consecrated after being built in 1798 but had to be closed shortly thereafter due to flood damage. After two more catastrophic floods in 1897 and 1899 the church was irreparably damaged and in 1906 had to be demolished. Between 1930 and 1936, today’s Silent Night Chapel was built in its place. The original furnishings of the former Church of St. Nicholas were preserved and integrated into the Chapel.
"Silent Night" in the parish of Mariapfarr
The carol's roots and inspiration. The story of the world-famous Christmas carol begins in the deep winter of 1816 in Mariapfarr, in the Lungau region, in a time of suffering and deprivation. Over a matter of decades, the Napoleonic Wars had laid waste to the European continent, and the people yearned for peace and tranquillity. It was against this backdrop that Joseph Mohr in 1816 wrote his poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” in German.
The young assistant priest Mohr was faced with immense challenges in his work in the small community in what is now the province of SalzburgerLand. But his affable manner – uncommon amongst priests at the time – helped him build trust. He empathised with the people and understood their longing for hope in a bleak time. Perhaps it was this very longing that inspired him to write his quiet, gentle poem: connecting the Christmas story as it occurred in a “silent night” with the deep emotion of comfort and confidence.
- Silent night Location Mariapfarr © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Paulk
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Franz Xaver Gruber’s melody is born. Franz Xaver Gruber moved to Arnsdorf from Upper Austria in 1807. He was a dedicated teacher, but his great love was music. He had very few pupils to teach, as many children remained at their parents’ farms to work. As a result he had time to work as the sexton and organist in the neighbouring village of Oberndorf. This is where he met and befriended the priest Joseph Mohr, who was impressed by his musical skills. On 24 December 1818, Mohr asked Gruber to compose a suitable melody for a poem Mohr had written. Gruber wrote the melody that very same day.
The old primary school in Arnsdorf now houses the Silent Night Museum. Via a creaky set of stairs, you ascend to the second level and to the former living quarters of Franz Xaver Gruber and his family. The small village near Oberndorf was for centuries a well-known place: while the economic situation in the region and its prospects were dismal, its Maria im Mösl church made the town a popular pilgrimage site. The schoolhouse in Arnsdorf has been preserved in its original state and continues to serve as a school.
The beginning of a musical trip around the world. We don’t know what people's initial reaction to “Silent Night” was when it was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818. However, it is possible that the song may have fallen into oblivion if it hadn't been for the Oberndorf organ. The Tirolean organ builder Carl Mauracher was commissioned to rebuild the instrument in the church in Oberndorf, and during his visits to the village he became acquainted with this carol. He took the sheet music back with him to his hometown of Fügen in Zillertal, Tirol, where the song quickly captured people's hearts. It's astounding that at a time when innovations and new ideas were disseminated slowly, “Silent Night” spread so quickly from the remote Zillertal to the rest of the world. Tirol was home to a great many mercantile families who often gave concerts on their travels. It has been documented that the song was performed by the travelling singing group the Strasser family in Leipzig. Soon it appeared for the first time in printed form in a songbook entitled “Vier ächte Tyroler Lieder” (Four Authentic Tirolean Songs).
Weihnachtsschmuck © Österreich Werbung / Harald Eisenberger
Der Orgelbauer Karl Mauracher aus Fügen © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft
Salzburger Glockenspiel © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Eva-Maria Repolusk (Eva trifft.)
Haus von Franz Xaver Gruber in Hallein © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner
Franz Xaver Gruber’s place of calling
The most fervent wish of the then 47-year-old teacher Franz Xaver Gruber was to be able to devote himself completely to music. His wish was fulfilled in 1835, when Gruber was appointed organist of the Parish Church of Hallein. In addition to his duties in the church he could also pursue his activities as a composer, and the result was a significant amount of church music.
On December 30th 1854 in Hallein, Franz Xaver Gruber wrote “Authentic Origins of the Composition of the Christmas Song”. In this document he clarified the origins and authorship of the lyrics and melody of “Silent Night! Holy Night!” and put an end to all the misconceptions, for instance that the song actually originated in the Zillertal or was composed by Michael Haydn. Franz Xaver Gruber died in Hallein in 1863 at the age of 76 as a respected and affluent man.
Across from Hallein’s Parish Church, housed in the former sexton’s house, is the Silent Night Museum, which will reopen on September 27th 2018. It will present the complete documentation of the Christmas carol, Joseph Mohr’s guitar and furnishings from Gruber’s flat as well as original manuscripts and the “Authentic Origins” document. Franz Xaver Gruber himself lived in the sexton’s house for 28 years.
- Salzburg Christmas Market © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Achim Meurer
Silent Night location Salzburg
Joseph Mohr’s childhood and youth
Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg on December 11th 1792 out of wedlock and spent his childhood and youth in the city in impoverished conditions. But the vicar of Salzburg Cathedral, Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, took Mohr under his wing and saw to it that the penniless boy received an education. Both in primary and secondary school, Mohr was always among the top pupils of his class, and in 1807 his musical talent enabled him to secure a place at the Abbey Choir School of St. Peter – excellent training for the 15-year-old. He subsequently studied theology at what at the time was the Royal Bavarian Lyceum and was ordained as a priest at Salzburg Cathedral in 1815.
Today, special “Silent Night! Holy Night!” tours in Salzburg that take visitors to sites such as Mohr’s birthplace on Steingasse, Salzburg Cathedral, the seminary on Makartplatz, the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter and the present-day University of Salzburg, where Mohr’s grammar school was formerly located. Each year on December 24th at 7 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., the famous Salzburg Glockenspiel in the city centre plays the melody of “Silent Night! Holy Night!”. And during Christmas Eve mass, churchgoers sing the original version.