“Silent Night”: How a beloved Christmas carol was born of war and disaster 200 years ago

On Christmas Eve in 1818, two guys with a small guitar entered a church in Oberndorf, Austria, and also prepared to sing a brand new Christmas carol.

Times were bad in Oberndorf, by which lots of individuals worked on the water, manning the salt barges that plied the Salzach River. The upheaval in central Europe caused by the Napoleonic Wars had simply ended.

And only two decades earlier, the dark summer of 1816 — later blamed ash from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia — had caused famine and deprivation.

But in that fall of 1816, a young Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed that a six-verse Christmas poem that began “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” — Silent Night, Holy Night — concerning the Nativity of a curly haired Jesus.

Two decades after, Father Mohr enlisted a friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, a local schoolteacher and musician, to think of a tune for the poem that may be played for Christmas on the guitar. (Legend has it that the church organ was damaged by mice or water and was on the blink.)

Gruber’s article is considered to have taken approximately a day.

Now, as the two guys put the words to songs that Thursday 200 decades back from Oberndorf’s St. Nicholas Church, they voiced for the very first time what’s probably history’s most enduring and beloved Christmas carol.

Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is glowing …

“It’s such a part of the general soundscape of Christmas,” said Sarah Eyerly, assistant professor of musicology and director of the early music program at Florida State University’s College of Music.

“Often times when tunes are composed by men and women in times of terrific stress, there’s something very human about them,” she said. “And that often resonates with folks outside of that specific geographic place, or culture or time period. ”

Because 1818, “Silent Night” was translated from German into countless languages. There are approximately a dozen different translations just in English, with an 1850s version the most widely accepted, Eyerly said.

Even the carol has spawned TV displays, a cartoon, even a documentary. On the Western Front in 1914, during World War I, it had been sung during the spontaneous “Christmas Truce” between allied and German soldiers who had been occupying each other hours earlier.

It’s been played with rap musicians, Bing Crosby and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

There are gospel and heavy metal versions.

Yet it is the intimacy of the words, the spectacle and the songs for the small parlor guitar that’s soothed listeners for two decades.

“Mohr was a guitarist,” Eyerly said. “Guitar is a far more approachable folk tool than an organ, and also for a tune in this style … it would be much more common to play with it on a plucked string instrument such as a guitar. ”

Both guys probably sang it as a duet, using Mohr playing, a la Simon and Garfunkel, who’d a Split version in 1966, known as “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night. ” In that version, the carol is sung to the piano within the background of a grim 1960s newscast.

Why Mohr didn’t write the tune is a mystery.

“He was also a really gifted violinist and guitarist,” Eyerly said.

But Gruber chose a special musical style, known as Siciliana, for its tune, she said. “It’s an Italian tune form that was really popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s meant to mimic the sound of water. It’s associated with gondoliers in Venice, or Italian sailors … (But) why that style? ”

“I really think that it’s because the majority of the congregation that were listening that day were workers on the river,” she said. “They were ship captains or send workers. … I can’t prove that, but that really is my analysis of the piece … that it mirrored the soundscape of water plus it links to people’s daily lives. ”

The carol spread rapidly across Europe. It was purchased to the United States, in which, some reports say, it was first performed on Christmas Day, 1839, in the churchyard of New York’s Trinity Church, Wall Street, with a troupe of traveling Austrians, the Ranier Singers.

The carol was translated into English from the 1850s with an Episcopal priest at Trinity, John Freeman Young. He published it in a book of Christmas carols in 1859. He interpreted the first, sixth and third verse, and did a rather good job, provided the German of the tune, Eyerly said.

The original first verse in German goes:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Alles schläft; einsam wacht

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Which roughly translates into English:

Silent night! Holy night!

What’s asleep. Only the loyal holy couple are awake, alone.

Beautiful boy with curly hair.

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And then how Young smoothed it into the classic:

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon virgin mother and child

Holy infant, so tender and gentle

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Young sprinkled with Jesus’ curled hair, but included the folksy, “yon” and known as the kid “tender and gentle. ”

Along with the carol, Mohr’s elegant six-string guitar has also endured for two decades, according to the Silent Night Association.

For a moment, it wrapped in a tavern and afterwards, during World War II, was sheltered in a salt mine to safeguard it.

It had been brought to the United States, along with an early manuscript of the carol, in the 1960s and returned for a cross-country tour during the Bicentennial in 1976.

It’s now reportedly on screen from the Silent Night Museum, in Hallein, Austria, on the Salzach river about 20 miles south west of Oberndorf.

Buy Tickets for every event – Sports, Concerts, Festivals and more buytickets.com