Roamer: A history of most popular carol Silent Night

Josef Mohr in the Stille Nacht Chapel, Oberndorf
Josef Mohr in the Stille Nacht Chapel, Oberndorf

Many years ago I compiled a series of radio documentaries entitled In Passing. Each programme looked closely at things that we rarely think twice about, that we take for granted and only ever consider ‘in passing’.

I talked to authoritative academics and passionate boffins about common-or-garden matters and regarding the latter, I discovered that garden worms are one of the most prolific and successful species in the world. Much of the earth’s rolling landscapes and arable plains have gone through an incalculable number of worms’ intestines countless times!

Another bizarre revelation concerned spiders, which apparently weave more symmetrical webs after they’ve been fed hallucinogenic drugs. Don’t try this at home!

Most intriguing was an American Professor of Polysomnography (the study of sleep) who claimed that mankind’s ‘normal state’ was to be asleep. Wakefulness, he maintained, was abnormal!

These findings, and many more, were a real revelation, as was the mention on Wednesday’s page - in passing - of the Christmas carol Silent Night.

Affirming that Hark The Herald Angels Sing is a world-favourite Christmas carol, I stated that Silent Night is probably more popular. Several readers immediately confirmed that it most definitely is, and it seems that there’s something of an ‘industry’ around the beautiful old Austrian carol.

Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht was sung for the first time on Christmas Eve 1818 in St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a little Austrian village set on the bend of the River Salzach about 11 miles north of Salzburg.

Stille Nacht’s evocative words and peaceful melody soon echoed serenely around the world.

In Austria the carol is now regarded as a national treasure. It has been translated into several hundred languages, and arranged many thousands of times. It has been performed by numerous famous singers, leading choirs and eminent orchestras.

The carol has topped the list of Britain’s most recorded Christmas song of all time according to music licensing company PPL - Phonographic Performance Ltd.

It has been recorded by artistes from across the whole musical spectrum - from punk bands to Susan Boyle to Elvis Presley.

There is a Silent Night Museum at Oberndorf, where the carol was ‘born’, and numerous other museums, memorials and permanent exhibitions in Austria and around the world.

St Nicholas Church, where it was first performed, was demolished after flood damage in the 1890s and a memorial chapel erected on its site in 1937. There’s a replica chapel building in Michigan USA!

There are various legendary stories about the authorship of Stille Nacht, some containing some truth, but in 1995, following the discovery of the earliest known musical manuscript of the carol, the full story could be told.

Local myth and tradition takes us back to Oberndorf in the winter of 1818 when Joseph Mohr was the town’s young priest. He was also a musician.

On Christmas Eve Joseph discovered that his church organ wasn’t working. Legend has it that mice had chewed away its mechanism, or that it had rusted.

But the young priest was determined that there would be special music at Christmas. He’d written a poem which he showed to the church organist Franz Gruber. Joseph hoped that Franz could urgently write a tune for the words that could be played on something other than the defunct church organ.

Gruber, evidently adept at speed-composing, wrote a melody and the song was performed to guitar accompaniment later on Christmas Eve.

Some said that Joseph Mohr wrote the words of Stille Nacht whilst walking through an Oberndorf forest late on a snowy night, and that after its first performance the carol was lost, to be rediscovered years later. Many people thought that the melody was written by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven!

The American historian Bill Egan’s research into the carol has been widely published, confirming that Father Joseph Mohr wrote the words of the original poem in 1816, two years before its Oberndorf debut. At the time he was a priest in a church in Mariapfarr, Austria – said to be the sunniest town in the country.

Two years later on Christmas Eve, after he’d been transferred to Oberndorf, Father Joseph asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. They sang the carol as a duet at Christmas Mass in St Nicholas Church. Joseph played his guitar and the church choir repeated the last two lines of each verse.

Mohr never revealed what had inspired his words, and Gruber never expounded on Father Joseph’s desire to have his poem put to music.

Decades after the carol’s first rendition a friend of Father Mohr recounted: “I was often the guest of the extremely sociable Rev Joseph Mohr in Wagrain (a high valley market town in the state of Salzburg).

In good humour we would drink a toast to the lyricist of Stille Nacht. Joseph would be grateful and say that it was one of the most treasured moments of his life, when shortly before Christmas, 1818, he met Mr Franz Gruber and said: ‘Let’s work up something together for Christmas Eve’ - which was the way it turned out.”

Travelling singers heard the carol in Oberndorf and the ‘something together for Christmas Eve’ was carried beyond the town to become the most evocative, most loved and most sung Christmas carol of all time, all around the world.

And like the baby Jesus - it was born so very humbly.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft; einsam wacht

Nur das traute heilige Paar.

Holder Knab im lockigten Haar,

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!