Thursday Dec. 24, 2020’s Smile of the Day: Silent Night

On this Day:

“Stille Nacht” or Silent Night was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come to Oberndorf the year before. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, he had written the poem “Stille Nacht” in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph had worked as an assistant priest.

The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf , now part of Lamprechtshausen. On Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for that night’s mass, after river flooding had possibly damaged the church organ. The church was eventually destroyed by repeated flooding and replaced with the Silent-Night-Chapel. It is unknown what inspired Mohr to write the lyrics, or what prompted him to create a new carol.

According to Gruber, Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who serviced the instrument at the Obendorf church, was enamoured with the song, and took the composition home with him to the Zillertal. From there, two travelling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, included the tune in their shows. The Rainers were already singing it around Christmas 1819, and once performed it for an audience that included Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia, as well as making the first performance of the song in the U.S., in New York City in 1839. By the 1840s the song was well known in Lower Saxony and was reported to be a favourite of Frederick William IV of Prussia. During this period, the melody changed slightly to become the version that is commonly played today.

Over the years, because the original manuscript had been lost, Mohr’s name was forgotten and although Gruber was known to be the composer, many people assumed the melody was composed by a famous composer, and it was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers as c. 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting (per Wikipedia).

Since 1818, Silent Night has been translated from German into hundreds of languages. There are about a dozen different translations just in English, with an 1850s version the most widely accepted, Eyerly said.

The carol has spawned TV shows, a cartoon, a documentary. On the Western Front in 1914, during World War I, it was sung during the spontaneous “Christmas Truce” between allied and German soldiers who had been killing each other hours before.

It’s been performed by rap musicians, Bing Crosby and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

There are gospel and heavy metal versions.

Yet it is the intimacy of the words, the scene and the music for the small parlor guitar that has soothed listeners for two centuries.

“Mohr was a guitarist,” Eyerly said. “Guitar is a much more approachable folk instrument than an organ, and for a song in this style … it would be much more common to play it on a plucked string instrument like a guitar.” (per The Washington Post).

First, a Story:

There are three phrases that sum up Christmas: Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, and Batteries Not Included.

Second, a Song:

Silent Night was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011. The song has been recorded by many singers, groups, choirs and performers across many music genres. The version sung by Bing Crosby in 1935 is the fourth best-selling single of all-time (per Wikipedia).

This version of Silent Night is from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from their 2012 Christmas Devotional of their choir and congregation.  As someone said in the comments on YouTube,  “This just soars”.  I totally agree and I hope you agree.  Enjoy!


Thought for the Day:

“May you have the gladness of Christmas which is hope; The spirit of Christmas which is peace; The heart of Christmas which is love.” – Ada V. Hendricks

Have a great day!

© 2020 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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