Friday, December 25, 2015

“Silent Night”: The story of one of our best loved Christmas Carols

Painting of Salzburg, Austria in winter by Hubert Sattler  (wikipedia0

OBERNDORF, AUSTRIA Christmas carols are among the most enduring pieces of music in the Christian world. So much so, that they are part of our DNA as if we were born with the words already in our programmed in our souls.

In today’s world which is so often filled with turmoil and strife, the story of one of our most beloved seasonal carols, “Silent Night”, is worth telling.   

“Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in a tiny church nearly 200 years ago when a small troupe of actors performing in villages throughout the Austrian Alps came to the town of Oberndorf on December 23rd in 1818.

Oberndorf bei Salzburg is situated approximately 11 miles north of Salzburg, Austria on the shores of the Salzach River. Its sister village of Laufen in Bavaria, Germany lies across the Salzach Bridge.

The town had been split following the Napoleonic Wars when the Principality of the Salzburg Archbishops divided it in 1816 after the Congress of Vienna.

In the same year, a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote a poem entitled “Stille Nacht” while living in Mariafarr, the hometown of his father. A year later, Mohr moved to Oberndorf in 1817.

In 1818, the acting group was scheduled to re-enact the story of Christ’s birth at the Church of St. Nicholas, but the organ was not working and could not be repaired before Christmas.

Some say the organ was broken due to mice but others claim that rust caused the problem.

Without an organ, the actors performed their program in a private residence instead.

Reverend Mohr attended the program which was adapted from the first chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament.

So impressed by the performance was Father Mohr that he decided to take the long way home so he could meditate about the season.

Mohr’s walk took him over the crest of a small hill overlooking Oberndorf from which he could view the snow-covered panorama shimmering in the moonlight beneath the stars. Reveling in the thoughts of the performance he had just witnessed and the serenity of the cold wintry night, the pastor peered down at the Christmas-card setting and recalled the poem he had written the year before.

Mohr’s poem told the story of the night when angels proclaimed the birth of the Messiah to shepherds tending their flocks on a hillside.

As he gazed upon the village, something told Reverend Mohr that his poem might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service the following night. The problem was that there was no music to which the poem could be sung.
 Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria where "Silent Night" was born nearly 200 years ago  (wikipedia) 
The next day, Mohr went to visit his church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, and asked him if he could compose a melody suitable for his poem that could be sung with a guitar.

With only a few hours to create his masterpiece, Gruber created a tune that could be sung without the need of an organ. And so, as circumstance would have it, “Silent Night” was born because the church where it began had no organ.

The Oberndorf congregation heard the carol for the first time on Christmas Eve in 1818 when Mohr and Gruber sang the words accompanied by Gruber’s guitar.

Several weeks later, the well-known organ builder, Karl Mauracher, arrived in Oberndorf to repair the broken instrument. To make certain it was fixed, Mauracher told Gruber to test the organ before he departed. Gruber sat down at the keyboard and began to play his simple but elegant Christmas carol.

Mauracher was overwhelmed by the music. He took copies back to his own village of Kapfing where two well-known family singing groups – the Rainers and the Strassers – heard it for the first time.

Both families were equally captivated and the following yuletide season incorporated it in their Christmas repertoire.

The Strasser sisters spread the carol throughout northern Europe and, in 1834, when King Frederick William of Prussia heard it for the first time, he ordered his cathedral choir to sing it every Christmas Eve.

By 1838, the Rainer family brought the song to the United States where they sang it in German at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside New York’s Trinity Church.

Nearly 50 years after it was written, “Silent Night” was translated into English. Today the song has more than 200 versions and has been translated into hundreds of languages.

Perhaps most meaningful however, came during the Christmas truce of 1914 in World War I. It was then that “Silent Night” was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by the troops on the front lines. The reason – because it was the one carol that all the soldiers on both sides of the battlefield knew.

Music is truly universal, and nowhere do the words express it better than “Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright.”