The Christmas carol “Silent Night!” is two hundred years old.
“It was the 24th of December of the year 1818, when then assistant priest Joseph Mohr at the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf handed over to the organist Franz Gruber (who at the time was also school teacher in Arnsdorf) a poem, with the request to write a fitting melody for two solo voices together with choir and for accompaniment by guitar.”
These are Gruber’s own words, written three decades later in his “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night!’” It took Gruber just a few hours to come up with a setting that Mohr thought so good he included it in that evening’s mass. Mohr sang the tenor part and played the guitar, while Gruber sang bass. According to Gruber, the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance -mostly shipping labourers, boat builders and their families.
“Silent Night!” was composed soon after the end of the Napoleonic wars (1803-15) – a time of political and social turmoil after the Congress of Vienna had redrawn the national boundaries of Europe. In 1816 Salzburg lost its independence and its lands were split between Bavaria and Austria. Some 10 kilometres north of the city, Oberndorf had been a suburb of Laufen and was now separated from the town now located across the river in Bavaria when the Salzach River became the new border. Joseph Mohr lived in Oberndorf during these troubled times.
On Christmas Eve 1818, as Mohr and Gruber, backed by the choir, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church and sang “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” for the first time, they could never have imagined how popular it would become. The following year, the Rainer Family Singers sang the carol in another local parish church and three years later included it in a programme given before Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
By 1832, the Strasser Family Singers were performing it in Leipzig, Germany, where a local newspaper wrote, “The singers also fulfilled the wish expressed in these pages that they sing the beautiful Christmas carol ‘Silent Night! Holy Night!’.” And in 1839, “Stille Nacht” crossed the Atlantic to be first performed in New York City by the Rainer Family Singers near the Alexander Hamilton monument in Trinity Churchyard.
In 1859, John Freeman Young, then serving as a minister at Trinity Church, published the English version most frequently sung today, using three of Gruber’s original six verses. Since then the carol has been translated into more than 300 languages and in 2011 it was placed on UNESCO’s list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”.