There can only be one appropriate Christmas carol to sing as the holy hour of Christ’s birth approaches; ‘Silent Night’.
‘Silent Night’ is probably the most universal of all Christmas carols ever written and composed. Originally German in origin as ‘Stille Nacht’, or ‘Heilige Nacht’, it was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. It was declared an’ intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2011. The song has been recorded by numerous singers from every music genre. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the third-best-selling single of all time.
The song was first performed on Christmas 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Orbendorf, a village on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song "Stille Nacht" in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph had worked as a military administrative assistant.
The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arndorf. Before Christmas Eve, Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass, after river flooding had damaged the church organ. It is unknown what inspired Mohr to write the lyrics, or what prompted him to create a new carol.
According to Gruber, Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who serviced the instrument at the Obendorf Church, was enamoured with the song and took the composition home with him. From there, two travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, included the tune in their shows. The Rainers were already singing it around Christmas 1819, and once performed it for an audience that included Franz 1 of Austria and Alexander 1 of Russia, as well as making the first performance of the song in New York City in 1839.
By the 1840s the song was well known in Lower Saxony and was reported to be a favourite of Frederick William 1V of Prussia. During this period, the melody changed slightly to become the version that is commonly played today.
Over the years, because the original manuscript had been lost, Mohr's name was forgotten and although Gruber was known to be the composer, many people assumed the melody was composed by a famous composer. The composition of the melody was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr's handwriting and dated by researchers as c. 1820. It stated that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr's handwriting. The first edition was published in 1833.
‘Silent Night’ will always remain the one carol that tells me that Christmas Day and the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth dawns. It forms the very heart of my Christmas and to hear it sung sweetly by a beautiful Mass choir is nothing less than the sound of Christmas magic descending from the heavens. Please accept my humble offering of this most beautiful of all Christmas hymns on the Eve of the Saviour's birth.
Love and peace. Bill xxx