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How Much Do You Know about the Origin of “Silent Night”?

Christmas Gift BagsClarksville, TN – Perhaps the best-loved Christmas carol of all times is “Silent Night.” Somehow the simple words convey the mystery and simplicity of the real Christmas story better than any other hymn, at least in my humble opinion.

The original carol was entitled, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht; it was written in German at the request of an Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr.

According to www.silentnight.web.za, “on December 24th, 1818, Joseph Mohr journeyed to the home of musician-schoolteacher Franz Gruber who lived in nearby Arnsdorf. He showed his friend the poem he had written four years before and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass.”

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The original melody was indeed written by Gruber with only a guitar accompaniment. This has led to numerous speculations as to why a simple guitar was used rather than the pipe organ located in the church. Some have guessed that the organ was broken because mice had eaten the bellows.

A movie made for Austrian television weaves evil railroad barons and a double-dealing priest into a fabricated history. A book written on the subject connects Mohr with a fire in Salzburg and has Gruber playing the zither. A cartoon, “Silent Mouse,” even tells the supposed story of “Silent Night” from the viewpoint of a mouse!

Silent Night historian, Renate Ebeling-Winkler Berenguer says that the first mention of a broken organ was in a book published in the United States.The truth is that no one knows why the guitar was chosen.

What is known is that the original manuscript was lost, but a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers at about 1820. It shows that Mohr wrote the words in 1816. It proves that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting.

In 1859, John Freeman Young published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, according to Volume 8 of The Hymn, in an article by Byron Edward Underwood published in1957. The version of the melody that is generally sung today differs slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original. Today, the lyrics and melody are in the public domain and can, therefore, be copied by anyone.

One of the most amazing events in history occurred during World War I when both English and German troops, previously fighting each other furiously, ceased warring on Christmas Eve to join in the singing of “Silent Night” together on the battlefield. It is reported that this was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides knew.

The reason that “Silent Night” is now known through more than 300 translations into other languages began when Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ. During one of these visits, he obtained a copy of the composition and took it home with him. The simple carol began its journey around the world as a “Tyrolean Folk Song.”

Two traveling families of folk singers from the Ziller Valley, similar to the Trapp Family Singers of “The Sound of Music” fame, incorporated the song into their repertoire. According to the Leipziger Tageblatt, the Strassers sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. It was during this period, several musical notes were changed, and the carol evolved into the melody we know today.

Having sung previously before an audience which included Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I, the Rainer family performed “Stille Nacht” for the first time in America in 1839 at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.

By the time the song had become famous throughout Europe, Joseph Mohr had died and the composer was unknown. Although Franz Gruber wrote to music authorities in Berlin stating that he was the composer, the melody had been assumed to be the work of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven at various times and these thoughts persisted even into the twentieth century.

The controversy was put to rest when the long-lost arrangement of “Stille Nacht” in the hand of Joseph Mohr was authenticated. In the upper right hand corner of the arrangement, Mohr wrote, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.”

Whatever the history of “Silent Night,” it just wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t hear this favorite. A modest curate and a musician not known outside of the village where he lived joined together to create this beautiful message of peace on earth flowing from a baby laid in a makeshift cradle where cattle usually ate their hay.

This year as we enter the hustle and bustle of the season, let us remember to open our hearts to the wonder of this story and its meaning, this most amazing of all “silent nights.”


Sue Freeman Culverhouse
Sue Freeman Culverhousehttp://culverhouseart.com/
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing. She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter,  Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University. Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students. Sue writes "Uncommon Sense," a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of "Seven keys to a sucessful life", which is  available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.

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