Silent Night

 Jeff Seager and I had a fine time this past weekend, presenting the first of our Here We Come A-Caroling! programs. Our program includes Christmas carols both well-known and obscure, with the stories of the songs' creation and audience sing-along and participation.

Each year we add new material to our presentation to keep it fresh and lively, and then there are a few pieces that are requested year after year, like Silent Night.

Silent Night, as you may know, was written by Joseph Mohr almost 200 years ago, in 1816 while he was a young priest in Austria. He was transferred the following year to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf and there he asked Franz Gruber to compose a guitar melody for the poem he had written. Gruber complied and the two men performed the song that year (1818) for midnight mass on Christmas Eve).  The men called it simply Tyrolean Folk Song.

Why did Mohr ask specifically for a guitar melody? Some speculate that it was because the organ was out of order--there is the legend that a mouse chewed on the organ bellows, making it impossible to play. Those who knew Mohr, however, knew he loved to play the guitar, so perhaps he just wanted a guitar melody he could play in church.

It is a fact that a master organ builder who had come to repair the organ many times in the past was called again to fix some problem, and he saw the music, liked it and obtained a copy which he took home with him to the Ziller Valley region.  At the time there were two families of traveling singers (like the Von Trapp family in Sound of Music) in the Ziller Valley. They heard the song and added it to their performances. They changed a few notes here and there and the song became the one we know today, but it was still written in German.

In 1839 the Rainer Family came to America and the song was first performed here in New York City; by this time its title had been changed to Stille Nacht. It was eventually translated into English in 1859 by John Freeman Young, and included in his book CAROLS FOR CHRISTMAS TIDE.

For many years it was assumed that the music for Silent Night was composed by one of the famous composers of the time (Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart). Franz Gruber wrote to the emperor claiming that he had written the music but his claim was ignored. The controversy over the composer was put to rest almost 180 years later in 1995 when a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting notes that he wrote the lyrics and that Franz Gruber wrote the melody.

The song continued to be popular became part of another story, one that happened during World War I. At Christmas in 1914 a truce was declared, and in one place on the battlefields of France a German soldier began singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). His song was heard by the Allied soldiers in the trenches on the other side of the battlefield, and led to all of them singing it, each in their own language. Men from both armies crossed the no-man's-land between the two sides and even, according to the legend, engaged in a game of soccer. At the end of the truce, they all retreated to their own sides and the war commenced once more. It was the first and only Christmas truce ever declared during a war, probably because the leaders on both sides realized the danger of men getting to know each other personally and perhaps not being able to fire on those they had met as friends. 

This is a powerful story, particularly when linked to the peace and beauty of the song Silent Night, and a favorite of our audiences.