200 Years of Silent Night

Christmas Eve is the 200th anniversary of the first singing of "Silent Night."

This history of the beloved carol was written especially for the St. Pauls Bote newsletter of 1931 by Dr. Otto Kuebler of Germany.

Year after year it is sung again, that old, beloved Christmas carol, which conquered the hearts of young and old as hardly any song has ever done. And yet, isn’t it strange how little is general known about the origin of this favorite among all Christmas songs? And yet, the origin of the song is as clear as day. It is a mistake to say, “the exact origin of the carol is in doubt,” as I read again and again last Christmas, when I was in the States. In fact, the song is the result of the harmonious cooperation of two friends dating from the last century, and the scene the borders between Germany and Austria in the beautiful neighborhood of Salzburg. The poet’s name is Joseph Mohr, that of the composer Franz Gruber, the former a priest and the other a school master.

Mohr comes from a simple family, but out of a famous town. In Salzburg, the home of Mozart, he was born on Dec. 11, 1792, very nearly a Christmas baby himself. On account of his musical talent he becomes a choir-boy, attends the college of the Benedictines and becomes a priest. While priest of the church of Oberndorf, he became acquainted with Franz Xaver Gruber, a young school-master and organist of his church. An ideal friendship sprung up between the two, based on their mutual love of music. For Mohr, too, was an excellent organ player and had a beautiful tenor voice.

Let us first, before we speak of the birth of our lovely Christmas carol, learn a few items about Franz Gruber himself. He, too, is the son of very poor people. His father was a weaver at Hochburg, Upper-Austria, near the Bavarian border. In that place, in a low cottage, Franz Gruber was born Nov. 25, 1787. The great musical talent of the boy became evident even while he was quite small. The father, however, intending to make him take up his own profession, suppressed the boy’s musical zeal with the utmost severity. Though the priest and the schoolmaster of the village intervened for the sake of their highly gifted pupil, the father was quite inexorable. Secretly, at night, the boy slipped out of his poor home to run to his teacher for piano lessons and he got many a whipping when his father caught him red-handed. It is not a mere legend that the boy for want of a piano knocked tiny logs into the wall of his garret to practice upon them. At last came a turning for the better. The teacher fell ill and there was no one to play the organ at mass but the weaver’s boy. Gruber, twelve years old, and his father’s apprentice, performed so well that everyone was highly astonished. It was now that the severe father gave up his resistance and even bought an old spinet for him. However, it took six years to get the father’s permission to become a teacher. After a short time we see him installed as a teacher in Arnsdorf from where he took charge of the organ in Oberndorf, the neighboring place. It was on this occasion that Gruber and Mohr met, and out of this friendship arose the immortal carol “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

A whole wreath of legends has wound itself around the origin of this song, characteristic of the German mind, but only partially correct. The reality was very much simpler (than the legends). Shortly before Christmas, 1818, Mohr had suggested to Gruber to perform a new Christmas music together with the choir. Indeed, Mohr appeared with the text in Gruber’s school house in the morning of Dec. 24 and the very same day Gruber composed that wonderful melody which was to conquer the world. At midnight the two friends sang their brand new song at Christmas mass, Mohr taking the tenor, Gruber the bass voice. Girls’ voices and a guitar, which Mohr handled in a masterly way, formed the accompaniment. This peculiar arrangement was made on account of the organ being broken. The congregation was overwhelmed and breathless. The catching tune went from mouth to mouth. An organ builder from Steiermark busy with the reparation of the organ took the song home with him. Very soon it had passed through the whole of Germany. Especially during the world war it proved its peacemaking power. It was not rare that solemnly at midnight on Christmas Eve the men in the German trenches started to sing it full of adoration and homesickness, and the hostile trench answered so that the song went up to Heaven in wonderful harmony of many voices and tongues.

Christmas without “Silent Night” we can no longer imagine. It unites the nations and awakens the longing for the great higher community above all quarrel and dispute. Still, with the same modesty that adorns the simple beauty of the song, do poet and composer disappear behind their work. Joseph Mohr, the poet, died Dec. 1848, not yet 56 years old, at Wagrain where a marble statue against the church wall reminds us of him; Franz Gruber, the composer, went to rest after a busy long life in June, 1863, at Hallein, both places near Salzburg. On his tomb we read the lines:

“What he has taught in song,
Felt in harmonious strain,
He now beholds in full –
Beauty and truth made plain.”