The Malta Independent 23 September 2019, Monday

200 years of Silent Nights: The history and myths behind the Christmas classic

Albert Galea Monday, 24 December 2018, 11:46 Last update: about 10 months ago

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright .... ” The lyrics of ‘Stille Nacht’, or rather, ‘Silent Night’ are synonymous with Christmas, sung by hundreds of thousands of carollers and wellwishers every year. This Christmas is notable when it comes to the German composition; Christmas Eve will be the 200th anniversary since the melody was first performed. The carol itself however has an interesting history behind it, and has been subject to a number of wives tales which have been passed down from generation to generation. What better occasion than the 200th anniversary of the first performance then to explore the carol’s history and the legends that surround it?

The History

Composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr, the melody was first performed at the St. Nicholas Parish church in the small village of Obendorf, 17 kilometres north of Salzburg in Austria. The making of the well-known carol dates to two years before its first performance, when Mohr, a young priest, penned the lyrics of the song as a poem. The poem was in fact first written to commemorate the coming of peace, only a year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which had ravaged through Europe for the best part of 15 years.

The six-stanza poem was then basically set aside for the next two years, until on Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr approached his friend, school-teacher and passionate musician Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to set his music to music to be sung by two voices and a guitar. Since the guitar was used more often in taverns, it was not exactly approved of by the Church as a suitable instrument for during mass, and so the duo waited until the conclusion of Christmas Eve mass before debuting the song. Mohr sang tenor and strummed the guitar while Gruber sang bass, with the congregation coming in on the chorus.

The night passed and that was it; the composition didn’t really hold much significance for Gruber – he described it as a “simple composition” soon after the first performance. The song spread but in a limited manner. It was only in 1822 when Emperor Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia were guests at the castle of Count Dönhoff, and the Rainer siblings were asked to perform folksongs for the entertainment of his guests. Among other songs, they performed “Silent Night”, impressing the visitor from Russia especially, which led to them being invited to St. Petersburg.

From there they would tour extensively around Europe bringing Tyrolean song into fashion across the continent. The big break however came when the second generation of the Rainer singers travelled to America in 1839 for a concert tour, with ‘Silent Night’ being amongst their repertoire of pieces. The first performance of the carol is said to have taken place at the Trinity Church in New York, after which the four singers toured through New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, a trip which lasted up until 1843.

In those four years, ‘Silent Night’ is found in a number of publications which were printed in America, the earliest known of those being from 1840. Following the success, Ludwig Rainer starts the Rainer Group, made up of 15 singers, which then tours extensively throughout Europe.

‘Silent Night’ had become a very well regarded piece of music by then, but there was some confusion about its origin. In fact, many thought that it had been the work of the famous composer Michael Haydn. In fact, in 1854, Frederick William IV of Prussia required the sheet music for his court orchestra and thus requested a copy from St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg. Coincidentally, one of Franz Xaver Gruber’s sons was present in the seminary and ended up clarifying the song’s true authorship. Shortly thereafter, Franz Xaver Gruber wrote up a document to finally clear up the situation regarding the origin of the Christmas song. Five years later, the song is translated into English for the first time by the Bishop John Freeman Young. By the turn of the century, the carol had been sung in all continents, and in 1914 it is documented to have been sung in the legendary Christmas Truce.

Come 1941, and Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt also sang the carol at the White House.

Fast forward another 70 years to 2011, and the song is declared an intangible national cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The myths

As with many things in history, there are a number of myths and legends that surround the carol. As is also the case with many things in history, many of the aforementioned myths and legends are untrue or do not have the evidence to back them up.

One of the many questions surrounding the song is on why Gruber decided to use a guitar to play ‘Silent Night’. After all, back then it was most certainly not the most fashionable of instruments, and there was definitely no earthly reason why it should be preferred in Church over the traditional organ. As a result of Gruber’s odd choice of instrument, one legend has come about; that the Church’s organ had fallen victim to a particularly hungry mouse, who nibbled away at the instrument’s bellows, hence rendering it unplayable.

The first suggestion that the organ may have been defective was made by one Josef Gottlieb in an essay in 1909, whilst the story of the famished mouse was first told in 1954 by Hertha Pauli.

However, there is no proof of any mice (or other non-human creatures for that matter) ever being involved in the series of events that led to ‘Silent Night’ being played on the guitar. What is documented however is that, whilst it was playable at the time, the organ desperately needed repair work – which it would coincidentally get the year after Gruber and Mohr’s first performance.

Was the skull of Joseph Mohr exhumed?

The exhumation of the skull of ‘Silent Night’s writer is one of those stories that is, in actual fact, totally true. Throughout his life, Joseph Mohr had refused to be painted, meaning that there is no picture of him in existence. This proved to be a problem for sculptor and pastor Joseph Mühlbacher who, in 1912, wanted to create a monument of Mohr and Gruber. Given the lack of any evidence on how Mohr actually looked, Mühlbacher did what any reasonable man would do and arranged for Mohr’s skull to be exhumed.

After the monument was completed then the skull was kept in Oberndorf until the construction of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel, where it was walled into the building. At the foot of the hill on which the Silent Night Chapel stands, one can find a cast of the sculpture made of Mohr’s face. The real kick in the teeth though? Given that there was most definitely no facial reconstruction technology available to call upon in 1912, Mühlbacher’s depiction of Mohr probably has very little to do with the priest’s actual facial likeness. Talk about facing your problems...

Can ‘Silent Night’ only be played on Christmas Eve?

Across the world, ‘Silent Night’ is thrown into various Christmas playlists – be it that of a radio station, or that of a choral ensemble – and played in the entire run-up to December 25. However, the Alpine region strictly adheres to a rule: that ‘Silent Night’ can only be played on December 24 – ideally during Christmas Eve mass. The culture is passed on from generation to generation, although certain regions have more morbid ways of passing the tradition on than others; parents in Bavaria deter their children from singing the carol on days other than Christmas Eve by telling them that every time a person sings the song on a day that is not December 24, a person will die.


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