Christmas Carols: Silent Night
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby,
keeping watch over their flocks at night”
Unlike most Christmas carols, the origins of Silent Night are rooted in well-established facts AND steeped in dramatized legend.
The Facts: Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), a young priest in the parish church at Oberndorf (a village on the Salzach river in present-day Austria) wrote the lyrics sometime before 1818. Some sources claim he wrote the lyrics to the German “Stille Nacht” as early as 1816, while still living in his hometown of Mariapfarr. Whatever the truth regarding the lyrics, the melody was unquestionably composed by Mohr’s friend and fellow musical enthusiast Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) — the schoolmaster and organist in Arnsdorf (a village near to Oberndorf) — days or hours before Christmas 1818. Together, Mohr and Gruber performed Stille Nacht for the first time at mass in Oberndorf on Christmas Eve in 1818.
The Legend: Adding drama to the creation of Silent Night, stories recount how, on December 23 of 1818, Mohr went to visit a mother and her new-born child. On the way back to the rectory, he paused by the river and meditated on the first Christmas. Inspired by the beauty and serenity of the winter scene surrounding him, Mohr wrote a poem capturing the essence of that great faith event. Upon his return to the parish, he was confronted with the news that the organ was broken. Being so close to Christmas and without sufficient funds to consider repairing the organ, the people feared that Midnight Mass would be silent. Father Mohr rushed to the home of his friend, Franz Gruber, and shared his plight. He handed Gruber the poem, and asked him to write a melody for it to be played on the guitar. Franz Gruber completed the task in time, and at Midnight Mass, 1818, the world heard for the first time the simple yet profound song we know, in English, as Silent Night.
While the legend is a lovely vision to accompany a profoundly moving composition that, no matter the inspiration, does capture the ineffable mystery of the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ, most historians agree that the elaborations are fanciful. Gruber himself, in his 1854 “Authentic Account of the Origin of the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night!'”, simply says that Mohr handed him the poem to write music for. No hints are given of where or when the poem was penned, or that there was an organ crisis! Gruber goes on to say the song was included in the Christmas mass that evening with Mohr singing the tenor part and providing accompaniment with guitar, while he (Gruber) sang bass. According to Gruber the song was met with “general approval by all” in attendance. Perhaps Herr Gruber was simply an understated, humble chap! Or, as most historians believe, there truly wasn’t more to the story, the romantic embellishments a later addition.
As for the dating to the lyrics, in 1995 a manuscript of the score was discovered, the oldest and only surviving copy written and autographed by Joseph Mohr himself. In the lower left is written: “Text von Joseph Mohr mpia Coadjutor 1816” (“Text by Joseph Mohr – confirmed by my own signature – assistant priest 1816”). After careful study by historians, it is estimated that this autograph was written between 1820 and 1825, while the “1816” after Mohr’s name is believed to refer to the year in which Mohr created the text. This autographed score also provides a key statement in the upper right: “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber” (“Melody by Fr. Xav. Gruber”) and therewith clarifies conclusively that Franz Gruber composed the melody to Silent Night.
Soon after the first performance, Gruber distributed arrangements for use in the towns around Oberndorf, and thereafter traveling bands of folksingers started to circulate it further afield. One in particular, the Rainer Family (a 19th century version of the von Trapps), took it to the courts of the Russian Tsar and Austrian Emperor, and then, in 1839, to New York, where it was picked up by an emerging modern music publishing industry.
In 1859, Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church, New York City, published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses. The version of the melody that is generally used today is a slow, meditative lullaby or pastorale, differing slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original, which was a “moderato” tune.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
The beautiful harmony of Reba McEntire, Kelly Clarkson, and Trisha Yearwood with a slight country flair.
Always a personal favorite, the unusual but beautiful harmonizing of Pentatonix.
Michael Bublé’s voice is lovely but does tend to put me to sleep. Nevertheless, this rendition with Bublé and the children’s choir is quite lovely.