Joseph Mohr, a young priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, was asked to plan the music for that all-important service, Christmas Eve Mass.
1818 was an especially cold winter. Mohr strolled over snow-covered lanes to the village church hours before the service was to begin. The choir had practiced the songs. They were ready, even though snowy weather had prevented some from attending practices.
The church organ didn’t work. What could he do?
He hurried to the home of Franz Gruber, a schoolteacher and musician friend. Whether he went there to talk about a poem he wrote or remembered while there is unclear. At some point in their conversation, Mohr showed a poem that he had written two years previously while he served at a church in Mariapfarr. He asked Gruber to compose music and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas poem.
That evening, Mohr and Gruber sang the song for the first time as the guitar played “Stille Nacht.” Singing four-part harmony, the choir repeated the last two lines of each stanza.
Karl Mauracher, an organ repairman, came to St. Nicholas the following month. While Mauracher worked on the organ, Mohr told him of the new song sung on Christmas Eve, accompanied by guitar. Mohr sang “Stille Nacht” for Mauracher, who loved it so much that he taught the song to other churches.
Mohr died before his song became well-known throughout Europe. The problem was that folks assumed one of the famous composers, such as Mozart or Beethoven wrote the melody. Gruber’s claims that he wrote the tune didn’t dispel lingering doubts. It wasn’t until an original document by Mohr was found in 1995 that folks widely accepted Gruber’s claim. The manuscript showed that Mohr penned the poem in 1816 and the Gruber composed the music in 1818.
“Stille Nacht” has been translated into English as “Silent Night.” Two centuries later, the carol is still sung every Christmas season. The talents of these two men live on in this song.
– Sandra Merville Hart
Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Zondervan, 2010.
Egan, Bill. “Silent Night: The Song Heard ‘Round the World,” Silentnight.web.za, 2016/10/27 http://www.silentnight.web.za/history/index.htm.
“Silent Night,” Wikipedia, 2016/10/27 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night.