The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Silent Night”

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Silent Night”

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol… “Silent Night”

Written by: Prophecy in the News

  • silent-night

silent-night-photos

Joseph Mohr was the son of a poor single mother, Anna Schoiber of Salzburg, Austria. His father left the mother and his son early in the child’s life, forcing the two to make a way for themselves. They found themselves in extreme poverty, living with Joseph’s grandmother. At the cathedral where the young man attended church services, the choir master recognized the talents the young man possessed, especially his aptitude for music. The choir master, Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, was determined that Joseph would be able to pursue an education. Joseph attended grammar school at Kremsmunster, completing his work with honors, and continued his education at the archdiocesan seminary in Salzburg. In August of 1815, he was assigned to his first church, located in Mariapfarr in the Salzburg province. His grandfather lived nearby in the village of Stranach, about a thirty-minute walk to the south. It is during this time at Mariapfarr that Mohr wrote a poem, which has become the lyrics to the world’s greatest Christmas carol. In 1816, Mohr produced the poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” What exactly was his inspiration is not known. Perhaps he was instilled by the beautiful, show-clad landscape as he walked from Mariapfarr to Stranach on a visit to his grandfather…and perhaps not.

Mohr’s tenure at Mariafparr was interrupted by poor health that required him to be removed to Salzburg for hospitalization. After his recovery, he was sent to the Nicola-Kirche, St. Nicholas Church, in Oberndorf. St. Nicholas was a new church located on the banks of the Salzach River and Mohr was to serve in the position of assistant priest. As Christmas 1818 approach, the church’s organ ceased to function. Legend has it that mice had eaten through the bellows, but this is doubtful. Being a common malady of organs, most organists know how to troubleshoot this type of problem. A more reasonabot problem could have been caused by the church’s location near the river. Rust may have prohibited the organ to work properly. A contemporary of the time reported the organ as being in poor condition and out of pitch. Whatever the cause, it appeared that the church’s Christmas Mass would be minus musical accompaniment. Mohr met with the service’s organist, Franz Xavier Gruber, to work on an alternative.

Gruber, a school teacher and organist, was actually moonlighting from his organist position in Arnsdorf. For economic reasons, Gruber sent his stepson to Arnsdorf to play for the Midnight Mass. Mohr approached Gruber with a copy of his poem, “Stille Nacht, Heilig Nacht.” The six verses Mohr had written two years prior seemed perfect for the Christmas Eve Mass, but instrumentation was still questionable. Mohr suggested that Gruber use the guitar, which resulted in musical genius. The two men sang the verses as a duet accompanied by guitar. The choir repeated the last two phrases in four-part harmony. The performance was very well received and the new carol spread throughout the St. Nicholas parish.

Sometime later, the church’s organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, found a copy of the carol left behind on the organ. Given permission to keep the copy, he returned to his home in the Ziller Valley of the Tyrol region with the simple carol, unknowing that he was about to send it on a journey that would spread it across the world. Back at home, Muracher shared the carol with two of the traveling performing families of the Valley, the Strassers and the Rainers. At this time period, families with musical talent would travel together presenting performances much like the von Trapps, the family portrayed in the movie musical, The Sound of Music.

tyrolean-singers

The carol did not have any notation of composer or lyricist, which resulted in its introduction as the “Tyrolean Carol” when it was first performed by the Strasser family in 1832. While touring in 1839, the Rainers were the first to perform the carol in the United States.

trinity-church-nyc

On Christmas Day, in front of Trinity Episcopal Church at Broadway and Wall Street in Manhattan, Americans were introduced to what would become their favorite carol.

In 1854, the government of Austria ordered an investigation into the origin of the carol. Due to lack of records concerning its origin, the song was considered to be an anonymous Tyrolean folk song. Some had credited the work to Johanna Michael Haydn, younger brother of the famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn. Unfortunately, Gruber had been generous in supplying requests for copies of the carol many times without notation of either his or Mohr’s names. The investigation was sparked by an inquiry sent by the royal chapel in Berlin to the Church of St. Peter in Salzburg. Gruber’s son sang in the choir at St. Peter’s and relayed the request to his father. Gruber then wrote a detailed history of the carol and credit was given to him and Mohr. Tragically. Mohr did not know of his poem’s fame and died in 1848 in Wagrain, penniless, having donated his earnings to eldercare and the education of the area’s children. In 1995, an original transcription of the poem with Mohr’s signature was found and authenticated, putting to rest any controversy surrounding the true source of the poem and its musical setting.

rev-young

During the Civil War, Rev. John Freeman Young translated the lyrics into the words we are so familiar with today. Rev. Young took three of the original six verses and changed their order, placing the first, sixth, and second stanzas into the pattern that has become the standard even for Austrians. Young later became bishop of Florida where he is buried near Jacksonville. Floridians today continue their ties with “Silent Night” with the production of Adventsingen held each December in Volusia County. Based on the similar annual concert by the same name in Salzburg, the concert is attended by many and is highlighted with the singing of “Silent Night.”

silent-night-music

“Silent Night” has become the world’s most loved carol as demonstrated in an incident during Christmas Eve of 1914. World War I had begun forcing servicemen from many countries to experience Christmas in muddy, cold trenches away from family and friends. On this particular Christmas Eve, German and British troops found themselves bunkered down in trenches just yards apart on the front line of the war. The weather took a sudden turn as a deep cold front crossed the lines. Water in the muddy trenches began to turn to icy slush as the me began to shudder from the cold. British outlooks began to report twinkling lights coming from the German lines. As their commanders observed the enemy through binoculars, they could see the German soldiers with small Christmas trees adorned with lighted candles. It appeared the German soldiers were extending a Christmas greeting to their foe. Suddenly there was a sound of singing, joined by others who added a harmony to the words “Stille Nacht, Heilig Nacht.” The British quickly recognized the carol and began to lay down their arms to venture out into the open, joining their enemy in singing “Silent Night.” An undeclared truce broke out and superiors refrained from stopping it. One British soldier put up a board that read “Merry Christmas,” and a German soldier did the same. Two soldiers from each side then walked toward each other and shook hands.

no-mans-land

Some of the Germans spoke English, breaking the language barrier that possibly could have separated the two sides. Together the men sat around campfires exchanging stories and small gifts such as buttons and chocolate bars and comparing family photos. On Christmas Day, the two enemy forces found themselves playing games together on “No Man’s Land,” the area between the front line trenches. Then on December 26, at 8:30 a.m. the truce ended just as it began, peacefully. The British commander shot three rounds into the air with the German commander echoing back with two rounds, a signal that the war was back. This is only one of the truly remarkable incidences that reflect how “Silent Night” has reached the world.

ms-schumann-heink

Ernestine Schumann-Heink was an Austrian born opera singer who immigrated to the United States in 1908. She was known for her efforts to raise money for the Allied war effort although she had sons fighting on each side of the battle fronts. Her son, August Heink, was a merchant mariner who joined the German submarine service, and her stepson Walter Schumann and sons Henry Heink and George Washington Schumann were member of the United States Navy. In 1926, Ms. Schumann-Heink initiated the tradition of singing “Silent Night” over American radio each Christmas Eve. Singing in both languages of “Stille Nacht” and “Silent Night,” she continued her tradition until 1935.

The original St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf was abandoned in 1903 and the church was rebuilt on higher ground. The old church was torn down in 1906 because of the destruction to the foundation caused by flooding of the Salzach River.

silent-night-memorial-chapel

In 1937, the Silent Night Memorial Chapel was dedicated on a landscaped mound over the site of the original church’s altar site. A replica of the chapel can be found in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Its builder, “Wally” Bronner had visited the chapel in Oberndorf and was inspired to erect this replica as a tribute of thankfulness to God. Bronner also collected translations of the carol and in 1993 presented the Oberndorf chapel 175 translations in honor of the 175th anniversary of the song. By 1999, his collection had grown to over 300 languages.

The construction of the carol has been evaluated by many. Its simple, folk-like and yet elegant and classic melody carries the picturesque description of the moment of the Savior’s birth. The compound meter of the piece provides a lullaby effect as the words describe the virgin mother and her child’s radiant face. The melody with its long notes and extended vocal range is musically challenging for most but the story within the carol’s lyrics is the vehicle that endears the carol to the heart of the singer. The melody was slightly altered from its original due to the oral passing of the tune during the early years.

The carol was originally written for duet and guitar, but is equally well received when presented by full choir and organ or solo instrument. This song has been arranged more than any other carol. Its plaintive, reflective mood induces the meditation of Christ’s moment of birth that many of us yearn for and seek during the sometimes hurried Christmas season. Inarguably, it is the world’s most beloved carol.

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 Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Source: “Songs of Christmas” and the stories behind them –  by Tommy and Renee Pierce (Copyright 2008)

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