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One of the most iconic Christmas songs, Silent Night made its world premier on Christmas Eve 1818 in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The performance, which was given during Christmas mass in the town's quaint little church, was quite a success, but no one had any idea that the piece would eventually become hugely popular around the globe.
Joseph Mohr - Lyrics
The lyrics for the song, which is called “Stille Nacht” in the original German version were written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr. Born out of wedlock in Salzburg on December 11, 1792 Mohr was able to attend the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium (private high school) in Salzburg with the help of dome vicar Johann Nepomuk Hiernle. The vicar recognized the young Mohr's musical talent and Mohr became a member of the choirs of the University of Salzburg and the Benedictine monastery, where he sang and played the violin. From 1808 to 1810 he studied philosophy at the lyceum of the famous Benedictine monastery in Kremsmünster, Upper Austria, and eventually returned to Salzburg where he continued his studies at the lyceum.
In 1811 Joseph Mohr entered the seminary after being granted a special permission, which he had to obtain given his status as an illegitimate child. He successfully finished the seminary four years later and was ordained as a Catholic priest on August 21, 1815. Following his ordination, Mohr worked as an assistant priest in various communities across the province of Salzburg, including Mariapfarr, where he wrote the lyrics in 1816. In 1818, while serving as an assistant priest in Oberndorf, he met Franz Xaver Gruber whom he asked to compose the music to accompany the lyrics. Specifically, Mohr asked Gruber to compose a melody for choir, two solo voices, and guitar.
It was not until 1827 that Mohr was responsible for the administration of his own parish. Despite his popularity with his parishioners, who adored him for his outgoing personality and peace loving attitude, the church made a failed attempt to “reign him in” by accusing him of neglecting his job. The accusations turned out to be baseless and the official investigation was recalled. Mohr eventually found himself in Wagrain (Austria) where he focused his efforts on social reforms and dedicated the last ten years of his life to fighting poverty and helping those in need. Among other things, he initiated the building of a school in Wagrain, which was officially opened in 1838. Joseph Mohr died on December 4, 1848 in Wagrain where he found his final resting place.
Franz Xaver Gruber - Music
Joseph Mohr's stirring poem about the birth of Jesus would have been all but forgotten had it not been for Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber, who was born Conrad Xavier Gruber on November 25, 1787 in Hochburg, Upper Austria later changed his name to Franz Xaver Gruber. He was the fifth of six children in a poor family, with both of his parents making a living as linen weavers, and was supposed to follow in their footsteps. However, Gruber displayed a love for music from an early age on, which was fostered and encouraged by his elementary school teacher, Andreas Peterlechner, who gave the young boy music lessons. Gruber worked as a weaver until the age of eighteen, at which point he finally received his father's permission to become a teacher. It was also from Peterlechner that Gruber learned the basics for becoming a teacher, which enabled him to successfully pass the public teacher's exam in Ried im Innkreis (Upper Austria) in 1806.
The following year was marked by two important events in Gruber's life. He started his first job as an elementary teacher at the public school in Arsndorf (Salzburg), and he married Maria Elisabeth Engelsberger, the widowed wife of his predecessor, with whom he had two children. Both of them died at an early age. In 1816 he became the organist of the newly formed parish of Oberndorf, where he also wanted to work as a teacher. Unfortunately, that wish was never granted. His life was filled with his duties as a teacher and organist, and even though school attendance was very low in those days as most farmers kept their children at home as extra work hands, in a report dated 1821 his school was named the best in the district.
The highlight, however, of his time in Arnsdorf was no doubt when Joseph Mohr asked him on Christmas Eve of 1818 to compose the music for his poem “Silent Night”. Gruber called it a “simple composition” and did not seem to have thought much of it. Of course, that was all to change in the years to come. For Gruber himself, the real highlight of his career were the celebrations surrounding the 300th anniversary of Arnsdorf's pilgrimage church “Maria im Mösl” in 1820. The festivities attracted 20,000 visitors who, along with the abbots of the Michaelbeuern monastery and the monastery of St. Peter enjoyed the musical performances of the church orchestra, which Gruber conducted.
Following the death of his first wife, Gruber married one of his students, Maria Breitfuß in 1825. They had ten children, six of whom died during childhood. Frustrated by his failed attempts to find a job as a teacher in Oberndorf, Gruber and his family left for Berndorf bei Salzburg in 1829. His desire to dedicate his life to music was finally fulfilled in 1835 when he was assigned as choir director and organist of Hallein (Salzburg). His happiness was cut short though when in 1841 his wife and their last child both died during labor. But life had to go on, and only a year later Gruber married his third wife, Katharina Wimmer, a friend of his second wife.
Throughout his lifetime, Gruber created a substantial musical oeuvre, and his love of music had a lasting impact on his family, including two of his sons who followed in his footsteps. Franz Xaver Gruber died in 1863 at the age of 76 in Hallein.
When Joseph Mohr wrote the song in 1816, Europe was going through a time of transition. The Napoleonic Wars had ended in the Congress of Vienna, resulting in a complete restructuring of Europe's borders. Among the many changes that took place, the Principality of Salzburg which had until then been under the auspices of the church lost its independence and was divided and secularized, with one part of Salzburg now belonging to Bavaria, and the bigger portion belonging to Austria. Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where the premier took place in 1818, became a divided town with the river Salzach forming the border between Austria and Germany. Over the centuries, the Salzach had served as a main artery for the transportation of salt, and provided the basis for the town's wealth. However, with the newly formed border running right through the town, the future seemed very uncertain. It was during this time that Mohr lived in Oberndorf. Before moving to Oberndorf, Mohr had lived in Mariapfarr for two years, which had greatly suffered under the occupation of the Bavarian troops. It is thought that this historical framework most likely informed Mohr's beautifully expressed longing for peace in the fourth stanza.
From Oberndorf To The World
After the premier of Silent Night in 1818 in Oberndorf, the first copies seemed to have appeared in the geographical vicinity of the two creators, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber. According to historical documents, the earliest copies belonged to vicars, singers, choir directors, organists, and school teachers in various towns and villages in Salzburg. However, the names of Gruber and Mohr were soon forgotten, and in 1854 and inquiry was made by the Royal Prussian Court Chapel with the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg as to the author(s). This incident prompted Gruber to write an “Authentic Account” about the origins and its authors, which has survived to this day and has provided most of the historical facts surrounding the creation of the song. It took until 1866 when it was first published in a book of church songs to finally become well known in Salzburg.
As early as 1819 it seems to have made its debut outside of Salzburg, in the Zillertal in Tyrol, where it was supposedly performed on Christmas Eve 1819 in the village of Fügen. Gruber himself mentioned in his “Authentic Account” that it was brought to Tyrol by a “well known man from Zillerthal”. This man was none other than Carl Mauracher, who in 1821 was employed by Gruber to repair the church organ in Arnsdorf, and who built a new organ for the church in Oberndorf in 1825. It is not known but quite possible that Mauracher knew Gruber as early as 1819.
Two “singing” families from Zillertal, Rainer and Strasser, were eventually responsible for spreading it beyond the borders of Austria. Both families undertook extensive travels throughout Europe performing various songs in Germany and England as early as the 1820's. The first documented recital outside of Austria occurred on December 1832 in Leipzig (Germany), where it was received with much applause. The following year, it was first published by A.R. Friese in Dresden and Leipzig (Germany) in a book called, “Eight Original Tyrolean Songs”. However, no mention was made of the songs' authors and it differed considerably from its original version.
Silent Night started its final spread to all corners of the globe on Christmas Day 1839 when the Rainer family was on tour in the US for four years and gave a recital in New York in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial at Trinity Church's cemetery at the end of Wall Street. By the mid-19th century it had been translated into English, and it popped up as “Choral of Salzburg” at an American booth at the World Fair in Vienna in 1873. Catholic and protestant missionaries further helped spread the song, which by the turn of the 19th century had reached all five continents. Today, Stille Nacht is known in 300 languages and dialects around the world.