December 24, 1818: German poet and priest Joseph Mohr brings a poem to Austrian composer Franz X. Gruber. Together they produced a Christmas carol which is still sung today nearly 200 years later. The song was first performed on Christmas Day 1818 at Nicola-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) which also seems fitting. The church was demolished in 1900 due to flood damage and urban change. Mohr had written his poem two years earlier. He wanted a melody, something for guitar, to accompany his words.
A Society has grown up around this song weeding out apocryphal stories from verifiable truth. They would also like to spread the story of the creation of this perennial favorite. Some myths state that the church organ was broken and so a new song for guitar was created. That story was first told in 1909. There doesn’t seem to be any reason given for not playing a traditional song on a guitar, if that were the case. The myths are silent on that aspect.
The original manuscript is lost to us. In 1995, a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found and dated from 1820. Mohr tells of his earlier poetry writing, being transferred to a rural church, and Gruber’s musical contribution. Gruber’s melody is influenced by Austrian folk music and even yodeling. We have no copy of Gruber’s original composition notes or finished song.
While the song was not an immediate Top Ten Hit, it never died away, again as rumor has it. Gruber published his song, it was not hidden away until the organ was repaired. Today it has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects. Worldwide popularity makes it a true Christmas carol. Perhaps it is the simplicity embodied in both lyrics and music, but the calming sense of peace surely comes to those who sing Silent Night.
“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” – Joseph Mohr
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day; their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the word repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas,’ even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.” – Alfred Anderson
“Christmas carolers sing about peace on earth, but they don’t tell us where.” – unknown
Also on this day: