Christmas winter village vector art illustration

Silent Night has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. It has such a beautiful melody and the lyrics are beautiful, both in the original German and in the English versions. But how did this song come into being? That the song survived is a miracle in itself, as it was a last minute solution for a devout minister in an Austrian village who wanted special music for his evening Christmas concert. But how did this simple song debuting in a small church as a substitute musical selection by a minister manage to become one of the most beloved holiday songs of all times? Here’s the story behind the song.

In 1817, Pastor Joseph Mohr was assigned to the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. Placed in charge of the music program, he frequently wrote poems and song lyrics for special church services. The following year during a very cold winter, he was working on last-minute preparations for the Christmas Eve mass when he found out that the church’s organ wouldn’t play. Despite all his efforts at fixing the instrument, he failed. In a moment of desperation, he turned to prayer, asking God how he could bring music to the congregation on this holiest of nights. And that’s when he remembered a Christmas poem he had written several years earlier. Grabbing his copy of the poem, he called on his friend, local school teacher Franz Gruber, who played the organ for the church as a part-time job.

Pastor Mohr explained his dilemma to Herr Gruber and asked him if he could write a simple tune that the choir could learn in time for that evening’s church service. He agreed to accept the challenge. Later that day, Herr Gruber arrived at the church in time to give the lyrics and score to the choir for a quick rehearsal. After he taught the choir the lyrics and the four-part harmony for the last two lines of each verse, the choir performed the song at the midnight service. Normally, this is where the song should have passed into obscurity, but for the organ repairman who came to the village a couple of weeks later to fix the church’s organ. While the repairman worked, the pastor told him the story of the broken organ and how they had been inspired to create an original composition accompanied only by a guitar. The repairman was so impressed with the story, he quickly wrote out the words and memorized the tune. Everywhere he went, as he moved from town to town repairing church organs, the repairman told the story about the Christmas miracle and sang the song to anyone who would listen.

About thirty years later, a family folk singing group heard the song. They liked it so much, they decided to perform it at a concert in Leipzig. The King of Prussia, William IV, was so impressed by the deep spiritual message, he requested to have the song sung every year at the annual Christmas concert. Several years after that, the song was translated into English and performed in Trinity Church in New York. It continued to grow in popularity. As an example of its popularity, during the American Civil War, soldiers would lay down their arms and worship together during the Christmas holidays. “Silent Night” was a frequently sung tune for these men.

As the song’s popularity grew, so did the legend about its origins. At various times, credit for the composition was attributed to Beethoven, Bach, or Handel. Herr Gruber had to start a letter-writing campaign to newspapers and other publishers, providing proof of the original arrangement in order to get credit for composing the song. Finally, he was acknowledged for composing the tune to “Silent Night.” Unfortunately, Pastor Mohr died in 1848. Because he couldn’t refute the story, it became accepted that he had written the lyrics that Christmas Eve day after mice had chewed through the bellows, disabling the organ rather than the more prosaic truth that the organ was old and broke in the extremely cold temperature of a frigid Austrian winter. But now you know the story behind the song.

 

NOTE: “Silent Night” has been translated into many languages. Below are the original German lyrics, the literal English translation, and the traditional English translation. All of the lyrics were found in About.com/ German Language.

 

DEUTSCH

 Music: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1818

Words: Joseph Mohr, 1816/1818

 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Alles schlaeft, einsam wacht

Nur dat traute hochheilige Paar.

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlische Ruh!

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

 

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Hirten esrt kundgemacht

Durch der Engel Halleluja,

Toent es laut von fern and nah:

Christ, der Retter ist da!

Christ, der Retter ist da!

 

Stille nacht, heilige Nacht,

Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht

Lieb’ aus deinem goettlichen Mund,

Da uns schlaegt die rettende Stund’.

Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Christ, in deiner Geburt!

 

ENGLISH

 literal English prose

translated by Hyde Flippo

 

Silent night, holy night

All is sleeping, alone watches

Only the close, most holy couple.

Blessed boy in curly hair,

Sleep in heavenly peace!

Sleep in heavenly peace!

 

Silent night, holy night!

Shepherds just informed

By the angels’ hallelujah,

It rings out far and wide:

Christ the Savior is here!

Christ the Savior is here!

 

Silent Night, holy night!

Son of God, oh how laughs

Love out of your divine mouth,

Because now the hour of salvation

strikes for us.

Christ, in Thy birth!

Christ, in Thy birth!

ENGLISH

Traditional lyrics

written by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young

 

Silent night, holy night

All is calm all is bright

‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace

 

Silent night, holy night,

Shepherds quake at the sight.

Glories stream from heaven afar,

Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;

Christ the Savior is born

Christ the Savior is born

 

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, love’s pure light.

Radiant beams from Thy holy face,

With the dawn of redeeming grace,

Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

 

The Chesapeake Public Library has many sound recordings of “Silent Night” in the collection. Go here and see what might appeal to you. Frohe Weihnachten!

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2 thoughts on “The Story Behind: Silent Night

  1. Fantastic blog post Ms. The Great. it is interesting how narratives change over time and how traditions are created and evolve. I only have one question…

    What about Krampus???

  2. In the Germanic-European tradition, Saint Nicholas rewarded well-behaved children with gifts during the Christmas season and his companion, Krampus – a horned anthropomorphic figure, punished children who misbehaved. Since the local pastor was focusing on the birth of the Christ child, he wouldn’t concern himself with secular matters. He would be focusing on the religious aspects of the season.

    Maybe you should write a song about Krampus. Who knows? Maybe it will become a traditional, holiday song in a hundred years or so. : )

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