I published this essay on December 12, 2020. It is the story of the most famous Christmas song. The story is a good one and anything that is worth saying once is worth saying twice. So exactly one year later, I am republishing this article. I would strongly recommend for you to listen to the U-Tube version of the Vienna Boys Choir (see link below) which I think is the best rendition and likely very much like the first version played in Oberndorf Christmas Eve 1818 with guitar accompaniment as the organ had been damaged by a flood.
In these times of turmoil and uncertainty, it is soothing to think of a simpler time, a time when there was calm and certainty. “Silent Night” is probably the most famous Christmas song of all time, radiating calm and certainty. The song hails from Oberndorf, Austria. The town is on the Salzach river, just ten miles north of Salzburg, the home town of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and sixty miles west of my hometown of Hinterstoder. I remember performing my duties as an altar boy in the Hinterstoder church that was built in 1787, which was to bring the sensor to the priest. It is the iron container filled with incense producing the “holy smoke” that I enjoyed wafting about, something I was not supposed to do.
It was a church in Oberndorf, of the same vintage as the one in my hometown, where Father Joseph Mohr had come to be the village priest. He had brought the lyrics to “Stille Nacht” with him, that he had written the year before he got to Oberndorf. Mohr had in mind a Christmas program on Christmas Eve, which is the traditional time to celebrate that holy event in Austria, with the first lighting of the (real) candles on a real evergreen tree and the arrival of presents from the “Christkindel” (Christ child). Father Joseph asked the schoolmaster and organist from the neighboring town, Amsdorf, Franz Gruber, to compose the melody for his lyrics. The church organ had been damaged by flooding from the Salzach River, and Gruber had to use another instrument to compose the melody. He chose the guitar. Thus, the first performance at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf was sung by Mohr and Gruber, and likely just a few boys and girls of the parish choir accompanied by the guitar.
Gruber was always associated with the song, but Mohr’s name faded into the fog of history, and people assumed that the actual composer was someone like Mozart, who lived in Salzburg, just ten miles south of Oberndorf fifty years before. It was not until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that accurately dated the work to 1816 for the lyrics and gave credit to Gruber as the composer in 1818.
Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who repaired the damaged Oberndorf organ, became enchanted by the lyrics and melody and took it to his village in Tyrol, where a troop of folk singers, the Strasser sisters, picked up this piece of music and performed it throughout Austria. The crowned heads of Europe, including the Emperor of Austria, the Czar of Russia, and the King of Prussia, were treated to it just a few years later. The Reiner family from the same area in Tyrol brought it to the USA in 1839, singing it outside Trinity Church in New York. Now, of course, it is sung in all languages around the world and has been sung by almost every famous singer, including Elvis and Pavarotti, and by some that are not so famous, like me in my altar boy days.
Mohr’s Manuscript of “Stille Nacht” in his handwriting
I recommend this U-tube version sung by the Vienna Boy’s choir ( The Wiener Sängerknaben) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKvKMgR8H7k
It is probably closer to what the original version sounded like when first performed by a small group with guitar accompaniment. The Wiener Sängerknaben is an organization that was founded in 1498. They count many famous musicians in their numbers as actual singers, such as Joseph and younger brother Michael Hayden as well as Franz Schubert when they were just young boys, and also famous world-class conductors from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Salieri, Herber von Karajan, to Anton Bruckner and Zubin Mehta to name just a few. One of the directors of the Vienna Boys Choir for many years was a childhood friend of mine, Wolfdieter Maurer. “Silent Night” brings back many memories of Austria. See my essay on Wien (Vienna) on this website: gusiwasiuk.com/2020/08/13/wien-vienna/