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Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr: the creators of "Silent Night"

Neither of them lived to see their collaborative work achieve worldwide fame: Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, one the composer, the other the lyricist of the world-famous Christmas carol and song of peace “Silent Night! Holy Night!”. 

Joseph Mohr (1792-1848)

Mohr-Gruber memorial at the church in Oberndorf © Österreich Werbung / MarkowitschMohr-Gruber memorial at the church in Oberndorf © Österreich Werbung / Markowitsch

Joseph Mohr was a priest and minister to the common people – an occupation that perfectly fit his social commitment to helping the needy. He wrote the poem “Silent Night! Holy Night!” in 1816, words that soon came to be seen as a symbol for peace and hope in a time of despair. Two years later, his friend Franz Xaver Gruber added music to the lyrics, and for 200 years the song has been regarded as a Christmas message of peace for the whole world.   

Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg on 11 December 1792 out of wedlock – a circumstance that at that time stigmatized children from the very beginning. He grew up in very impoverished conditions and lived in damp quarters, which was not conducive to the boy’s health. But the vicar of Salzburg Cathedral, Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, recognized young Mohr’s talent and intelligence and saw to it that he received a good education. At the same time the boy became active as a singer and violinist in the choirs of the university and the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter. After finishing school and completing his studies in philosophy, the 19-year-old entered the Catholic seminary in the city of Salzburg and in 1815 was ordained as a priest.  

  • Joseph Mohr fountain in Mariapfarr © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner Joseph Mohr fountain in Mariapfarr © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner
  • Holy Night Chapel, Oberndorf © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Eva-Maria Repolusk / eva trifft Holy Night Chapel, Oberndorf © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Eva-Maria Repolusk / eva trifft
  • Silent Night Museum in the Arnsdorf Primary School © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft Silent Night Museum in the Arnsdorf Primary School © Stille Nacht Gesellschaft
  • Original Silent Night autograph by Franz X Gruber for organ and 2 violins, 1845 © Keltenmuseum Hallein / a Original Silent Night autograph by Franz X Gruber for organ and 2 violins, 1845 © Keltenmuseum Hallein / a
  • Wagrain's school © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner Wagrain's school © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner

How the famous poem came about 

Joseph Mohr took up his first official position in 1815 as an assistant priest in Mariapfarr, in the Lungau region, the hometown of his father. In the twelfth-century church in Mariapfarr – a well-known pilgrimage site in SalzburgerLand – there is a picture of the “The Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi”. Researchers surmise that this was the source of Mohr’s inspiration for the six-verse Christmas poem “Silent Night! Holy Night!”.  

 

“Silent Night! Holy Night” was heard for the first time in Oberndorf in 1818 

The harsh climate of the Lungau region did not agree with Mohr and he was transferred to Oberndorf, on the Salzach River. In his new parish, Mohr became friends with the teacher Franz Xaver Gruber, who was the organist at the St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf. On Christmas Eve 1818, Joseph Mohr asked him to compose a melody for his poem. After the Christmas Eve mass, “Silent Night! Holy Night!” was heard for the first time, sung by the two friends in the church in front of the manger, accompanied on the guitar by Joseph Mohr. Mohr left Oberndorf the very next year, but his close friendship with Gruber endured for the rest of his life.

 

Eloquent, socially minded, unconventional

Joseph Mohr’s life as a young priest was marked by numerous changes of location before he was transferred to Wagrain as a vicar in 1837 – his final posting before his death. There Mohr initiated the construction of a school and an old people’s home. On 4 December 1848 Joseph Mohr died of lung failure. The sole material object in his estate was his guitar, which later passed into the possession of the family of Franz Xaver Gruber. The instrument is exhibited in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein.

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863)

Portrait of Franz Xaver Gruber with his guitar © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin GollacknerPortrait of Franz Xaver Gruber with his guitar © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner

On 24 December 1818, in his quarters in Arnsdorf, Franz Xaver Gruber composed the melody for “Silent Night! Holy Night!”. Joseph Mohr had entrusted him with the task of setting his poem to music. Franz Xaver Gruber lived to see the beginnings of the popularity of this Christmas song, but only his descendents witnessed its worldwide fame.

Conrad Xaver Gruber was born into impoverished circumstances on 25 November 1787. Economic conditions were dire and the poor farmers supplemented their income by weaving linen at home. Franz Xaver Gruber – who took the Christian name of his godfather Franz, as was customary at the time – initially had to learn the weaver’s trade as well, but even at a young age he loved music above all else. Gruber’s primary school teacher recognized this talent and gave him organ lessons, keeping this secret from Gruber’s father. At the age of eleven he finally received his own instrument and in 1805 he began his training to become a teacher. These years were overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars; it was a dangerous time and full of hardship. But Gruber successfully completed his training as a primary school teacher in 1807 and at the age of twenty was appointed to his first position as teacher, sexton and organist in Arnsdorf.

  • House of Franz Xaver Gruber in Hallein © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner House of Franz Xaver Gruber in Hallein © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin Gollackner

A life for music 

Gruber also assumed the role of cantor and organist in the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, for his great passion was music. His family life was marked by a number of calamities: of Gruber’s twelve biological children, only four survived to adulthood, and two of his wives died prematurely. He undoubtedly found comfort and joy in music, which connected him beginning in 1817 with the new assistant priest in Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr. After they had been friends for a year, Mohr asked Gruber to set his poem to music, and this marked the birth of “Silent Night! Holy Night!”. After their first joint performance of the song on Christmas Eve 1818, in the arrangement for choir and guitar, Franz Xaver Gruber also wrote an arrangement of the song for organ – he referred to this as “a simple composition”. 

 

A life for music in Hallein

In 1835 Gruber was appointed choir director, singer and organist at the Parish Church of Hallein – at the time the second-largest city in SalzburgerLand  with some 3,500 inhabitants. Gruber placed particular importance on the training of singers and musicians for the church choir. He shared his enthusiasm for music with his sons from his second marriage as well: the oldest, Franz Xaver (1826-1871), founded a singing association in 1847 and in 1849 the Halleiner Liedertafel, a group that still exists. Felix, the younger son (1840-1884), followed his father as choir director in Hallein. Franz Xaver Gruber died in Hallein in 1863 at the age of 76 as a relatively affluent man. 

"Silent Night" events

  • Mariapfarr

    24 Dec. 2017 / 5 p.m.: Singing in the Arcade Court of the Parish Hall, “Silent Night” with the original lyrics.

  • Oberndorf

    24 Dec. 2017 / 5 p.m.: Traditional “Silent Night!” Memorial Service in front of the Memorial Chapel.

  • Mayrhofen

    21 December 2017 / from 6.30 p.m.: "Klöpfel" carol singing in Mayrhofen

  • Steyr

    From 2 Dec. 2017 und on 5 Jan. 2018

    Steyr Local Railway – Bahnhof Grünburg | Advent- und Christmas rides

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Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr: the creators of "Silent Night"

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