December 2018 Issue
It was two hundred years ago that the world was first introduced to the beloved carol “Silent Night.” The author of the text, Josef Mohr, received housing and education through the church and music training as a chorister in the Salzburg Cathedral choir before going to seminary. He wrote the original six verses of “Silent Night, Holy Night” in 1816 as a young priest in Mariapfarr, located in the Salzburg province. He was appointed as assistant priest in Oberndorf from 1817-1819 and this is where he met Franz Gruber.
On Christmas Eve in 1818, two years after composing the text, Josef Mohr asked Franz Gruber to write a melody to go along with his poem so that it could be sung at the mass that evening. Gruber was the schoolteacher, church caretaker, and organist in nearby Arnsdorf, and in 1816 added the duties of being organist in Oberndorf as well. As the fifth of six children, it was expected that he would follow in the family business of linen weaving but Gruber’s heart was set on music. Thankfully he had schoolteachers who nurtured his passion for music and gave him lessons.
Gruber was asked to compose a simple tune that could be accompanied by guitar. There are multiple stories as to why guitar was used rather than organ, and they range from a church mouse that chewed through the wind bellows of the organ to flooding from the nearby river which caused damage to the organ. Whatever the actual reason, “Silent Night” was first sung by Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber with guitar accompaniment on Christmas Eve in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf near Salzburg two hundred years ago.
The original melody varies only slightly from what we sing today and both have a gentle, lullaby-like quality to them. Perhaps this comforting, rocking nature is what has helped to make it so popular. The carol was composed in a time of great difficulty. The Napoleonic wars had taken countless lives, ravaged the land, and destroyed the economy. It is in this setting that “Silent Night” first brought solace and peace. But its familiar and nostalgic sound would continue to speak through the horrors of war.
We have recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I. In the early stages of that war, on Christmas of 1914, a truce occurred thanks to Christmas carols. Legend has it that in one area of the war a German soldier and Berlin Opera tenor, Walter Birchhoff, began singing “Silent Night” in German and then in English. British soldiers on the other side answered back and before long soldiers were walking into No Man’s Land singing carols, conversing, playing soccer, and exchanging gifts.
In the documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam we hear the following:
At midnight on Christmas Eve…the whole area calmed and hushed and we could just hear one of the fire bases start singing “Silent Night.” Then it was picked up by the other positions around us and by everyone. It echoed through the valley for a long time and died out slowly. I’m positive it has seldom been sung with more gut feeling and pure homesick emotion. A strange and beautiful thing in this terribly death-ridden land. It is something I will always remember.
In the nightmare of war, it has been music – and here “Silent Night” – that reminds us of our shared humanity and our plea for a world where “all is calm, all is bright,” and that sleeps “in heavenly peace.” Amid the mass shootings, the violence on our streets, the constant political warfare, the racism, the fear-of-other, and so much more, we find comfort in the innocence of this lullaby.
Many of you will be bringing peace and comfort to your congregation this season with familiar carols like “Silent Night.” The familiarity and nostalgia of your music will be an important solace amid the chaos of the world. And many of you are providing the encouragement and education to young musicians similar to what helped shape Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber. You could be cultivating the skills of someone who will compose the next great hymn. We can’t fully know the impact that we have on our congregations and students but rest assured that you are doing something important and meaningful in this world.
Blessings to you and your work this season. Thank you for your part in bringing beauty and cheer to those around you. Merry Christmas!
The December 2018 Issue of the Pipe and Pedal is now available.