The story of 'silent night'

Silent Night, the most famous of Christmas Carols, is of relatively recent origin – having first seen the light of day in the Catholic Church of St Nicholas at Oberndorf in Salzburg, Austria, on the German (Bavarian) border.  There is a well established story of how it came to be written.

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the organ at the Church of St Nicholas broke down. The choir thus had to make do with a guitar, but despite this, the midnight mass was a resounding success because, in order to make up for the disappointment at losing their organ, the assistant parish priest and the organist sat down together to write a new carol. 

The organist –  Franz Xaver Gruber – composed the music. The curate – Joseph Mohr – wrote the lyrics.  They are said to have done the work together in the few hours before the midnight mass and called the composition ‘Stille Nacht.’
This pretty story may not be altogether true; that is to say, there is no doubt that Gruber and Mohr composed the carol together, but they may have worked on it over a fairly long period.

Moreover, for the first seven years of its existence, the hymn remained unknown outside Oberndorf. Then in 1825, it was taken to the Tyrol in Austria by Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who was shown the hymn when he visited Oberndorf (Gruber used to distribute copies of the carol to interested persons without even troubling to add his name).

In the Tyrol, it came to the attention of a glove maker named Joseph Strasser who was also the head of a singing family group and a student of folk music.

It would appear that Strasser was unaware of the true authorship; at any rate he paraded the carol at a Leipzig concert for Christmas 1832, calling it a Tyrolean folk carol – and giving it the name Song of Heaven. This carol (along with others) was actually sung by Strasser’s four children – his son, Joseph, and his three daughters, Caroline, Andrea, and Amalie. Their performance so impressed the king and queen of Saxony that they were asked to sing it to the royal children.

Now the fame of the carol began to spread rapidly. A music publisher named A R Friese

(who had been present at the concert) proceeded to publish the carol (its first appearance in print) as one of four Tyrolean folk songs sung by the Strasser family. In the years that had elapsed since it was first composed by Gruber and Mohr, its melody had undergone a slight change (influenced by Tyrolean folk music), but nevertheless the original composers must have known at once that the carol was their own. Controversy was inevitable and the true composers actually had to take legal proceedings before they were able to establish their claim to authorship. Incidentally, Gruber and Mohr were themselves Austrian by birth.

Although the fame of the carol quickly spread, no English version appeared for many decades; indeed, in England, the carol was long considered ‘vulgar’ – that is, suitable only for common singing, rather than as church music – and therefore did not find a place in most carol books of the 19th century.  

It was in USA that the three familiar English verses that are still sung today first made their appearance. They were written by John F Young about 1860 but apparently not published till 1876, when it appeared in the "Sunday School Hymnal & Service Book," at Medford, Massachusetts.

John Freeman Young was an Episcopal minister; he served at Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and New York – and became second bishop of Florida in 1867.  His work "Great Hymns of the Church" was published posthumously in 1887. The modern

English version is:

1.    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!

2.    Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight! Glories stream from heaven afar – heavenly hosts sing alleluia; Christ the Saviour is born!  Christ the Saviour is born!

3.    Silent night! Holy night! Son of God, love's pure light! Radiant beams thy holy face – with the dawn of redeeming grace;

Jesus, Lord at thy birth!  Jesus, Lord at thy birth!
Silent Night appears to have been first recorded by the Haydn Quartet in 1905. Even during the early years of the 20th century, it had not really established itself as the premier Christmas carol.

But by World War II, it had definitely attained this status, and the 1942 recording of the carol by

Bing Crosby (backed by Adeste Fidelis) was a multi million seller. Crosby donated all royalties to a fund for US missionaries in China.
Intestingly it is the story of only one carol - Silent Night. Other old Christmas carols featuring in the book ‘A thousand pages of songs’ released recently include – Adeste Fidelis, Angels we have heard on high, Away in a manger, The First Noel, God rest ye merry gentleman, Good King Wenceslas, Go tell it on the mountain, Hark the herald angels sing, It came upon a midnight clear, Joy to the world, Oh Christmas tree, Oh holy night, Oh little town of Bethlehem, Once in Royal David’s City, Three Kings of Orient and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

(Extract from the book ‘A Thousand Pages of Songs’ by Dr Michael Lobo).

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