This coming Monday, Christmas Eve, marks the two hundredth anniversary of the very first performance one of the most beautiful and classic of all Christmas carols, known in English as Silent Night. That event was the result of a natural disaster and the cooperation of two friends to ensure music for a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. Though this first performance took place in a small village in Austria, it was soon carried further afield by two families of traveling folk singers who learned the song and included it in their performances.
The first night of Silent Night . . .
As it happened, the lyrics to Silent Night were actually written two years before the music, in 1816, as a poem. The poet, in this case, was a young priest, Josef Franciscus Mohr, who had been ordained barely a year before. Josef was the illegitimate son of an embroideress and a mercenary soldier. His father did not marry his mother and soon abandoned the family. His mother had two other children and very little money to support them. Fortunately, the curate of the local Catholic cathedral gave young Josef a home as his foster child. The boy received a good education, and became a choir boy in the cathedral’s choir. This may have been the root of his strong and life-long interest in music. As he grew to adulthood, he made the decision to enter the priesthood. He completed his studies at the seminary, took his vows, and was ordained on 21 August 1815.
Father Josef Mohr’s first assignment was as assistant priest to the church in the small village of Mariapfarr. It was while serving there that he wrote a poem about the night when the angels announced the birth of Christ to a group of shepherds on a hillside. Some scholars believe that Mohr may have taken inspiration for his poem while walking through the open, rolling countryside around the village on a clear winter evening. Unfortunately, the following summer, Father Mohr became ill and had to return to Salzburg for several months to recuperate. When he recovered, he received a new assignment as assistant priest to the church of St. Nicholas, in the village of Oberndorf, just north of Salzburg.
In his new parish, Father Mohr soon made the acquaintance of Franz Xaver Gruber, a young schoolteacher in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Gruber also had a strong interest in music, and in addition to his teaching, he had become caretaker and organist at St. Nicholas church. With their mutual interest in music, Mohr and Gruber soon became good friends. The two young men had something else in common, both had grown up in fairly poor circumstances. Gruber had been born into a family of weavers, and spent much of his childhood working at that trade. At the age of eighteen, he had been given the opportunity to train as a schoolteacher. He was also able to study with a church organist who taught him to play the instrument, during which time he came to love music. Even before he met Josef Mohr, Franz Gruber had begun to compose various pieces of music, most of them for the church organ. However, by that time, he had also learned to play a few other musical instruments.
The village of Oberndorf, where St. Nicholas Church was located, was situated on the banks of the river Salzach. Lamentably, the entire village had actually been built in an area that was prone to flooding. (The situation became so dire that, in the 1920s, the entire village was relocated to higher ground, about 800 meters upstream.) In December of 1818, the Salzach river overflowed its banks and the flood waters caused significant damage to the organ in the church. (Sadly, repeated flooding eventually damaged the foundation of the church so severely that is had to be demolished in the early 1900s.) The timing of the damage to the church organ that December of 1818 was extremely inopportune, since there was no way to repair it before Christmas. This meant that the celebration of those important holy days would not be accompanied by traditional music. The parish priest, Father Mohr’s superior, was not at all pleased by this turn of events. His assistant, Father Mohr, wanted to find a way to mitigated the problem.
Josef Mohr had kept the poem he had written in 1816, while serving as a priest in Mariapfarr. The six-stanza poem narrated the occasion of the angels announcing the birth of Christ to shepherds caring for their flocks on a hillside, a story appropriate to Christmas. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1818, it occurred to Father Mohr that his poem could be set to music. The problem was, it could not be set to organ music, since the organ in St. Nicholas Church had been damaged by the flood waters and currently could not be played. Not one to give up hope, he walked to the home of his friend, Franz Gruber, who had rooms above the schoolhouse in Arnsdorf. Josef explained his idea to his friend, who he found was quite willing to take up the challenge.
Franz knew that his friend Josef not only owned a guitar, and was a talented guitarist, but also that the young priest particularly loved guitar music. Franz himself was also an accomplished guitar player, so he was quite capable of writing music for that instrument. Within a few hours, Franz Gruber had written a melody to accompany his friend’s poem, a melody that could be played on a guitar. Father Mohr was delighted with the music and hurried back to the church to share this new Christmas song with the pastor of St. Nicholas. His superior was equally pleased with the new carol, and directed that his assistant priest should perform it that night during the Christmas Midnight Mass service.
And so it was that the now traditional Christmas carol, Silent Night, was first heard during Midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, on Christmas Eve of 1818. The carol was sung by Father Mohr, accompanying himself on the guitar. Scholars note that the initial arrangement of the song was a bit faster than the slower, more deliberate and meditative version with which most of us are familiar today. The parishioners who attended Mass at St. Nicholas that night loved the song and word quickly spread about the new Christmas carol which Father Mohr had sung for the congregation. It was not long before visitors to the village of Oberndorf were carrying the song around the country. It was particularly popular with at least two family troupes of folk singers, both of whom made it a regular part of their repertoire during the Christmas season.
Within the next few years, the new Christmas carol, Stille Nacht, became widely known throughout Austria and the German states. Soon thereafter, its fame spread across the Continent, where it was quickly translated into the native language of each of those countries. It was translated into English and became known in Britain as Silent Night, by about 1830. Not long after that, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the countries of North and South America. Today, it is one of the most beloved Christmas carols in every country around the world.
Dear Regency Authors, though Silent Night was not well-known in Regency England, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that word of the haunting new Christmas carol was carried back to Britain by someone in the last year of our favorite period. Perhaps you might have one or more of your characters attended that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church? Or, maybe a character in your story knew either Father Mohr or Franz Gruber, who shared the words and music of the carol with them? Are there other ways in which Silent Night might add a touch of the Christmas season to a Regency romance?