Saturday, December 22, 2012

Silent Night: The Story of the Song

One of our most beautiful carols started life in a remote mountain church in the dark of midnight, with only a guitar accompaniment and two voices singing. Yet it found its way into the world to become one of the most well-known and treasured song of this season.

The song was written by Joseph Mohr almost 200 years ago, in 1816 while he was a young priest in Austria. Mohr was transferred the following year to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf and on Christmas Eve he asked Franz Gruber to compose a guitar melody for the poem he had written. Gruber complied and the two men performed the song for the midnight service 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 a legend that the bellows had been chewed by a mouse, creating holes that allowed the air to escape. Without the bellows, the organ's mighty voice was silenced so Mohr, being the new priest and desparate for something musical on Christmas Eve, had the poem set to music. There is no verification of that legend, but it is true that the organ, as with many organs in those days, required constant repair.
Perhaps Mohr just wanted a guitar melody he could play in church because he loved to play guitar. It is a fact that a master organ builder who had repaired the organ many times happened to hear the hymn being sung 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 and sung 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, with the title Silent Night.

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, or 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 was found, with notes that he wrote the lyrics and that Franz Gruber wrote the melody.
Whatever the reasons behind its composition, the song resonated then and still resonates today with singers and listeners everywhere. It's peacful, awe-filled words strike to the very heart of the Christmas season and transport us all to that silent night over 2000 years ago.
Silent Night
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child!
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, loves pure light
Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!
Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth!

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

1 comment:

Sue said...

I've always loved the story of this song...
and the song itself, of course.

Merry Christmas!


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