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Silent Night: The origins of a classic Christmas tune

Lawrence Brazier  |  11 November 2018

Silent night baubles and sheet musicThis year, one of the world’s most loved Christmas hymns turns 200. Few, however, might know the story of how it came to be composed.

Consider the catastrophe. A performance is expected, everything is set, anticipation runs high and then your organ breaks down on Christmas Eve. A mouse nibbling the bellows was suspected.

One might consider an oil-change, even a hefty kick! But all is to no avail and there are worshippers waiting to give praise. What is to be done? You call in the local maestro and his chum and get them to knock off something suitable for two solo voices and choir with a guitar accompaniment. Accelerando, no time for delay!

Thus the birth of a legend. A legend that gave us a song so obviously misnamed because ‘Silent Night’ made an enormous noise in the music world. Indeed, it’s still peaking to crescendo after crescendo as we enter into that special period of contemplation leading up to Christmas.


The story of the mouse and the broken organ is probably untrue. However, what is true is that exactly 200 years ago, on 24 December 1818, one Joseph Mohr, a Catholic priest in Oberndorf near Salzburg in Austria, wanted a new song composed for the parish’s Christmas celebration.

He grabbed a poem that he’d written two years earlier and popped over to the next town to his friend Franz Xaver Gruber’s house – on Christmas Eve, mind – and asked him to write the melody and all the rest that goes into the making of a piece of music.

Gruber was a teacher and performed the duties of cantor and organist at the church in Oberndorf. But he still managed deliver the same day, displaying the sort of spontaneous, one-off brand of inspiration that is sent straight from heaven to obey a command of great urgency.

Delivered and accepted, the song was premièred at the Church of St Nikolaus in Oberndorf and was immediately well received by the congregation. Mohr sang tenor and provided the guitar accompaniment. Gruber sang bass and the congregation rendered the recurring final two verses in each stanza.

‘Silent Night’ has six haunting stanzas and the melody is, of course, the perfect blend of simple magic and an appropriately gentle tone rising, ever so evenly, to a breast-swelling exaltation in performance. It is the stuff that hits are made of.

The immediate region succumbed first to the song’s charm, then Tyrol in the west of Austria, followed by Germany and the rest of the world.


Due to flooding in 1906, almost a century later, the original church of St Nikolaus was moved to another site and a plaque was hung in honour of the two, now famous, musical friends. In 1937 the present memorial chapel was built on the site of the old church and is, of course, a pilgrimage destination for ‘Silent Night’ lovers from all over the world.

The chapel is a small, octagonal edifice with capacity for perhaps forty persons. There are stained-glass windows depicting Mohr and Gruber.

The Oberndorf Tourist Office is also located there and incorporates a museum containing an exhibition of all the things relating to the ‘Silent Night’ story.

At 5pm every December 24, the Silent Night Memorial Celebration, which lasts about an hour, is held outside the chapel. There will be zither music and Glühwein (hot punch) for those who need defrosting. The famous song is naturally performed in its original form but there is also music rendered by a gloriously mournful horn quintet, large-bore artillery (a blunderbuss salvo, to be exact) is fired, words of reverence and prayer are offered and the simultaneous ringing of the bells of several churches in the area.


The celebration has a very traditional approach, which somehow adds to the bustle and excitement of that last-minute feeling that gets you all hot and bothered and secretly pleased.

And then there’s that song! ‘Taaaa diddy taaaa’ you will go as you sit and eat. There will be warmth and good cheer everywhere and perhaps even a little tear in remembrance of the New Year past and then bright anticipation of the New Year to come. This is how it is meant to be in a world currently torn with strife!


Topic tags: prayerliturgyandthesacraments, healthycommunitylife

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