The Silent Night Chapel, which is in the town of Oberndorf in the Austrian state of Salzburg, is a monument to “Silent Night.” The chapel stands on the site of the former St. Nicholas Church, where on Christmas Eve in 1818 the carol was performed for the first time. CNS photo/courtesy

‘Silent Night’ sends timeless message

By  Richard Szczepanowski, Catholic News Service
  • December 20, 2019

WASHINGTON -- One of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time is now into its third century.

It was 201 years ago this Christmas Eve — Dec. 24, 1818 — in a little church in what is now Austria, the world heard for the first time a poem set to music that eventually would become a signature song for the Christmas season.

“Silent Night” was sung for the first time that Christmas Eve at a midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire. The lyrics were written by a young Catholic priest, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and the music was composed by Francis Xavier Gruber, an organist and school master.

There is a popular legend that “Silent Night” was composed because the organ at Mohr’s parish church, St. Nicholas, was broken. According to the story, the priest wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” — “Stille Nacht” in the original German — and asked Gruber to compose the tune for guitar so there would be music at the midnight Mass.

This was all supposed to have transpired during the day of Christmas Eve of 1818, just hours before the carol was to be performed for the first time.

The truth is a little less dramatic.

Mohr wrote the poem “Stille Nacht” in 1816 in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr, near Salzburg. Two years later, while serving at St. Nicholas Parish in Oberndorf, the priest asked Gruber to compose a melody for the words. It is not known why Mohr wanted to set his poem to music. Gruber composed the music and “Silent Night” did indeed premiere at the Christmas Eve Mass.

The fact that the song was performed in German at the Mass would not have been uncommon or unusual in the Austrian Empire at that time, according to Sara Pecknold, professor of practice in the history of sacred music at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

“The vernacular (the language of a particular country or region) was being used in the liturgy. Even at a sung high Latin Mass, it would have been common to use German (in the Austrian Empire) in the songs,” she said.

This, she said, was partially due to the influence of Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who died less than 30 years before “Silent Night” was composed, and who defied the papacy and simplified the Mass and decreed other liturgical reforms in his empire.

“He certainly limited the splendour of the Latin Mass with an austere and almost Calvinistic approach to worship,” Pecknold told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington archdiocese. “So it certainly would have been proper to have a hymn sung in German accompanied by a guitar.”

The carol eventually spread its way from the small village to other parts of the Austrian Empire and eventually to the rest of the world. The attraction to the carol comes from “its blend of the particular and the universal,” Pecknold noted.

The carol’s fame — and popularity — in North America is due in a large part to the Rainer Family Singers, a popular early 19th-century group of travelling singers from Austria who performed the song as part of their repertoire. It is believed the group brought the song to the U.S. in 1839, the start of a four-year tour that included Canadian stops.

“Silent Night” remains as popular as ever. Bing Crosby’s 1935 recording of the carol is the third biggest-selling single record in history; his 1942 recording of “White Christmas” holds the No. 1 spot.

A Time magazine survey found the song to be the most recorded Christmas carol, with “Joy to the World” a distant second. In 2011, the UNESCO declared “Silent Night” an honoured part of “our intangible cultural heritage.”

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