Carol Origins: Silent Night

It was December 24, 1818, and in Oberndorf, Austria, Fr. Joseph Mohr, an assistant priest went to the home of his friend, the organist of the small church. He brought the words of a poem that he had written two years earlier and asked him to write a tune to it, to use at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.

The organist, Franz Xavier Gruber, reminded Fr. Joseph Mohr that the organ wasn’t working and so they would not be able to have music for the service. Fr. Mohr went in the other room and got a guitar. Gruber strummed a few chords, then started humming. He exclaimed, “The song, it sings itself.” A few hours later, he had composed the tune, and the two men presented the carol for the first time that Christmas Eve.

When the organ repairman, Carl Mauracher, later heard the carol, he took a copy of it with him. He presented it to two groups of traveling singers, who then performed it in their Christmas repertoire, and thus it began its journey around the world. The Strasser and Rainer families traveled and performed all over Europe, singing this as “the Tyrolian folk carol”. The Rainer family brought the carol to the United States, first performing it in German in New York City in 1839.

A publisher heard the carol sung near Innsbruck, Austria around 1832. He liked it and published it for the first time, claiming the source to be a “Tyrolian folk song.” The songwriters were not known at that time, and the tune had been changed somewhat from the original. That printed version is the melody that is still widely sung. However, in 1995 a copy of “Silent Night” was found, written in Fr. Joseph Mohr’s own hand, which gives the origin of this carol, along with proof of its creators.

“Silent Night was translated into English in 1863 and was first published in an American hymnal, Charles Hutchins’ Sunday School Hymnal.  Whilst across the world, it is played early and often leading up to Christmas, the people of Austria consider it a national treasure, with an organization formed to protect it from commercialization, and to convince people to learn the original melody. A visitor to Austria can visit museums and memorials in Oberndorf and other places significant to this carol. Makes me feel like going to Austria sometime to find the original tune! 😀

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, 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

~ Information excerpted from Centre for Church Music ~

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