Singing families from Zillertal spread the song around the world
Maybe the soft melody and the hopeful lyrics of Silent Night would have gradually disappeared into oblivion. However, two families from the Zillertal Valley propelled “Silent Night, Holy Night” into being the most famous and loved Christmas song of all time.
A priest and his poem, a teacher and his musical composition, a church in the village of Oberndorf, Christmas 1818, and the desire for peace: these were the humble beginnings of "Silent Night."
Its unbelievable reach was brought about by two travelling choral groups, the Tirolean family Rainer from Fügen and the Strasser siblings from Hippach. They sang a repertoire of Austrian songs in many cities around the world, such as New York and St. Petersburg, enthralling audiences far and wide with their traditional folk music.
The story of "Silent Night's" viral fame begins in the year 1824 with Carl Mauracher from Fügen. He spent a whole year building a new organ in the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf near Salzburg and it was there that he discovered the musical notes of Silent Night. When he finished his assignment, he took them home with him to Zillertal in Tirol. The song was well-liked and from then on was always sung during Christmas festivities.
The Strasser siblings were the first known group to perform the song. They originally came from Laimach near Hippach, where Lorenz Strasser lived with his children. The “Strasser House” (Strasser-Häusl) has been well preserved till today.
Strasser was a travelling salesman and in the winter months worked and lived with his musical family in different German markets. Dressed in traditional attire, they sang Tirolean “national” songs to draw attention to their wares. They first sang “Silent Night, Holy Night” in 1831 on a Christmas market in Leipzig.
After they gained popularity there, they travelled around Germany as a singing group, inspiring others with their performance of the Christmas song. From 1835 onwards they no longer performed in public. The song, however, continued its journey around the world!
A success story: The “Ur-Rainer” singers
Ludwig Rainer from Fügen was another local from Zillertal who in 1839, made his way out into the world spreading traditional folk music. Only 18 years old at the time, he already travelled America with his quartet, “the Rainer Family.”
Born in 1821, he was a member of the famous Rainer singing family. From 1824 to 1839 the first generation of family members (the “Ur-Rainer”) performed as very successful travelling singers. It all started when the “Ur-Rainer” singers sang for Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia in the castle Schloss Fügen. Impressed with their talent, the tsar invited them to St. Petersburg.
Although they never actually went to Russia, a referral enabled the Rainer siblings to perform at various other European royal courts, entertaining princes and kings. The family even sang in England at the crowning ceremony of the future Queen Victoria in 1938. They performed in public for the very last time in 1839.
The Rainer Singers also brought the carol to America! The story goes that the traveling singers performed it for the first time at the Hamilton memorial by Trinity Church in Downtown Manhattan.