It is so wonderful to enjoy singing the traditional Carols at this time of year. One of my favourites is Silent Night. It is so simply written but so impactful. I’d like to share with you a snapshot of the history of this Carol. There are several slight variations to the account of this song’s creation, but the essence of the story is the same. Here is my summary.
The song was written in 1818 by Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr in a small village not far from Salzburg, Austria. Franz Gruber was the organist and choir master of the Saint Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf. The church organ was damaged and not playable either because of rust damage caused by a recent flood of the Salzach River, or as a result of hungry church mice. There was neither time nor resources to repair the organ for the Christmas Eve service. Josef Mohr was an assistant pastor at the church. Following a moving Christmas play a year or two earlier, Mohr was reflecting, meditating on the beautiful message, and amidst the snowy village landscape during his walk home, he wrote the words to the poem.
On Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr walked to visit his friend Gruber and shared his poem about a silent Christmas night. Both were concerned that the Christmas Eve service would pass in silence without the organ. Within a few hours Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem, with a lilting melody line, a harmony part for a second voice and guitar accompaniment. It no longer mattered that the organ was broken because for the Christmas Eve service, Mohr and Gruber stood before the congregation and sang their message, accompanied by Gruber on guitar.
Weeks later when well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived to fix the church organ, he invited Gruber to sit and test the instrument. Gruber’s fingers began to play the simple melody he and Mohr had created for Christmas Eve. Mauracher was so impressed that he took copies of the music and words back to his village, Kapfing. There, the Rainer and Strasser families of singers learned the music, and helped to spread it across Europe. Within 20 years, the Rainers had performed Silent Night outside New York City’s Trinity Church. Today, it known all over the world and has been translated into more than 300 languages.
When we thought about the story of Silent Night, we thought we would try to capture a bit of the flavor of the original performance. Here is a sound clip of one verse (me singing) with some harmony (my daughter humming), and the guitar part plucked on concert ukulele (by my son).