RSS Feed

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

Norman Vincent Peale said, “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

“Silent Night” is about a calm and bright silent night, and the wonder of a tender and mild newborn child, words written in 1816 by a young priest in Austria, Joseph Mohr, not long after the Napoleonic wars had taken their toll.

In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were to re-enact the story of Christ’s birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas.

Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas’ church organ wasn’t working and would not be repaired before Christmas. (Note: some versions of the story point to mice as the problem; others say rust was the culprit) Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home.

That Christmas presentation of the events in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight home that night, Mohr took a longer way to his house. The longer path took him up on a hill overlooking the village.

From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the Christmas-card like scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just watched made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.

Mohr decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their scheduled Christmas eve service. The one problem was that he didn’t have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to compose a melody which could be sung with a guitar.

However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem. That the church organ was inoperable no longer mattered to Mohr and Gruber. They now had a Christmas carol that could be sung.

Photo of original church buildingnear Salzburg, Austria, in which “Silent Night”was first performed

On Christmas Eve, the small Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.

It was Christmas Eve, 1818, when the now-famous carol was first performed as Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht. Joseph Mohr, the young priest who wrote the lyrics, played the guitar and sang along with Franz Xaver Gruber, the choir director who had written the melody.

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863)

Joseph Franz Mohr (1792-1848)

An organ builder and repair man working at the church took a copy of the six-verse song to his home village. There, it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers, who performed around northern Europe. In 1834, the Strasser family performed it for the King of Prussia. In 1839, the Rainer family of singers debuted the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City.

The composition evolved, and was translated into over 300 languages with many different arrangements for various voices and ensembles. It was sung in churches, in town squares, even on the battlefield during World War I, when, during a temporary truce on Christmas Eve, soldiers sang carols from home. “Silent Night,” by 1914, known around the world, was sung simultaneously in French, German and English.

Over the years, the carol’s mystique grew with its popularity. After the original manuscript was lost, for decades, some speculated that the music had been written by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. In 1994, an original manuscript was found in Mohr’s handwriting, with Gruber named as composer.

Children and adults are touched by the words. And even in war, its impact crosses enemy lines.

The power of the carol was never so clear as on Christmas Eve 1914, when fighting on the battlefields of World War I stopped – and a lone soldier’s exquisite voice made history.

“It was impromptu, no one planned it,” Stanley Weintraub, the author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, told Daybreak South’s Chris Walker.

“It has to begin with something, and it did begin with elements of shared culture. If it hadn’t been for shared culture, certainly there would have been no Christmas truce.”

Weintraub said it started with German officer, Walter Kirchhoff, a tenor with the Berlin Opera.

“He came forward and sang Silent Night in German, and then in English. In the clear, cold night of Christmas Eve, his voice carried very far.

“The shooting had stopped and in that silence he sang and the British knew the song and sang back.”

Gradually the troops crawled forward into No Man’s Land, said Weintraub.

The song had a deep impact on many of the soldiers.

“Soldiers … wrote home the day after to their families, to their wives, and to their parents, saying, ‘You won’t believe this. It was like a waking dream.'”

“They recognized that on both ends of the rifle, they were the same.”

An illustration from the London News, originally published Jan. 9, 1915, showing the temporary ceasefire in World War I over the Christmas of 1914.

The song’s fundamental message of peace, even in the midst of suffering, has bridged cultures and generations. Great songs do this. They speak of hope in hard times and of beauty that arises from pain; they offer comfort and solace; and they are inherently human and infinitely adaptable.

Over 200 years later from the first singing of this hymn, we still sing with hope in our hearts “Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.”

As Charles Dickens said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”


Read more at https://www.brainyqu

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: