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The History of "Silent Night"

The places where the world-famous Christmas carol comes from remain steeped in memories and history today.

On Christmas Eve 1818, in the village of Oberndorf near Salzburg, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber combined a melody and some lyrics for the first time to create a song that would be sung by the entire world. Silent Night! Holy Night! went through many stages before it was able to carry its message of peace and unity to the most remote corners of the earth. 


 

"Silent Night" in the town of Oberndorf

The Silent Night Chapel in Obendorf © TSG Tourismus Salzburg GmbHThe Silent Night Chapel in Obendorf © TSG Tourismus Salzburg GmbH

Locals hear the song for the first time. Not far from the city of Salzburg lies the village 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, locals sang the Christmas carol “Silent Night” for the first time. The composer Franz Xaver Gruber documented how the song came into being himself, in a letter. This was a good thing, because otherwise innumerable myths about the origins and authorship of the song would have persisted.

When you visit Oberndorf today, you sense 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. Two more catastrophic floods in 1897 and 1899 irreparably damaged the church and in 1906 it was demolished. Between 1930 and 1936, today’s Silent Night Chapel rose in its place. The original furnishings of the former Church of St. Nicholas sit in the new Chapel until today.  

Silent Night location Mariapfarr

Joseph Mohr’s roots and inspiration

The whole story of the world-famous Christmas carol begins even further back, in the deep winter of 1816 in Mariapfarr, during 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 faced immense challenges in his work in the small community in what is now the province of Salzburg. But his affable manner – not that common among priests at the time – helped him build trust. He empathized 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 Silent night Location Mariapfarr © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Paulk

Did you know, that...

  • …every year on the 24th December the Silent Night memorial service in Obendorf is streamed live over the internet?

  • …there are ten "Silent Night" Museums in Austria?

  • …in Zillertal the "Strasser Häusl" now serves as a museum? It's where the Strasser family lived, and where the carol originated.

  • …the history of the carol can be seen played out as a historical play in the birthplace of Franz Xaver Gruber in Hochburg an der Ach?

  • …"Silent Night" has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects?

"Silent Night" in Arnsdorf

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

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 also had very few pupils to teach, as many children had to remain at their parents’ farms to work. Gruber thus had time to work as the sexton and organist in the neighbouring village of Oberndorf as well. This is where he met and became friends with the priest Joseph Mohr, who became impressed by Gruber’s musical skills. On December 24th in 1818, Mohr asked Gruber to compose a suitable melody for his “Silent Night” poem. 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, one ascends to the second level and to the former living quarters of Franz Xaver Gruber and his family. The small village near Oberndorf was a well-known place for centuries: 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.    

"Silent Night" in Fügen, Zillertal

Museum Fügen © Heimat- und Museumsverein FügenMuseum Fügen © Heimat- und Museumsverein Fügen

The beginning of a musical trip around the world

We don’t know how the people liked “Silent Night! Holy Night!” when it was first played and sung on Christmas Eve in 1818. Perhaps the song would have quickly fallen into oblivion if the Oberndorf organ had not entered the picture. 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 remarkable carol. He took the sheet music back with him to his hometown of Fügen, in Tirol’s Zillertal, where the song quickly captured the hearts of the locals.

It is astounding that at a time when innovations and new ideas were disseminated slowly and cautiously, “Silent Night! Holy Night!” spread so quickly from the remote Zillertal to the rest of the world. But the entire region of Tirol was home to a great many mercantile families who often gave concerts on their travels. In particular, the Rainer family from Fügen and the Strasser family from Laimach travelled as singing groups in the 1820s. We do not know if they had “Silent Night” in their repertoire from the very beginning, but it has been documented that the song was performed by the Strasser family in Leipzig. Soon thereafter it appeared in printed form in a songbook for the first time with the title “Vier ächte Tyroler Lieder” (Four Authentic Tirolean Songs).

"Silent Night" in Hallein

Silent Night location Hallein © SalzburgerLand Tourismus GmbH / Kathrin GollacknerSilent Night location 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 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.

"Silent Night" in Hochburg-Ach

Franz Xaver Gruber Memorial house © Österreich Werbung / Bernhard HartlFranz Xaver Gruber Memorial house © Österreich Werbung / Bernhard Hartl

The birthplace of Franz Xaver Gruber. Franz Xaver Gruber was born on November 25, 1787 during very turbulent times in the small town of Hochburg in Upper Austria. The Napoleonic occupation was making life difficult for much of the population. However, Franz Xaver Gruber was able to complete his teacher training and take up a teaching position in Arnsdorf. Gruber's parents were linen weavers, who insisted that their son also opted for this profession. However, Gruber's teachers picked up on the boy's musical talents and provided organ lessons in the nearby Burghausen. It wasn't long before Gruber was playing the violin and the "basso continuo" on the organ and composing his first songs. After the exam in 1806, the young Gruber returned to his birthplace to work as an assistant teacher.

Important locations Franz Xaver Gruber's life are close to Hochburg, such as the parish church of the Assumption, in which every year the historical play "The Search for the Silent Night" is performed and the Stiftsgasthof pub, in which Gruber composed a four-part wedding song. In addition, there is also the Gruber School which is named after the musician.

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The History of "Silent Night"

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