Silent Night

Image courtesy of visualparadox.com

By far, the most popular Christmas song of all time is Silent Night.

The story of Silent Night is pretty well known, although there are several renditions of the story so it is hard to know exactly how Silent Night came to be.

We do know that Joseph Mohr wrote the words and Franz Gruber wrote the music.

Mohr was a parish priest who served at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria and Franz Gruber was a teacher and the organist for St. Nicholas Church.

In 1816 Mohr had written a six-stanza poem that was either called Lied von Himmel or Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, said to be inspired by a winter’s walk in Mariapfarr.

In 1818, getting ready for the Christmas Eve mass, Mohr found that the organ wouldn’t work. Whether due to age, mice, or a combination of the two, it didn’t matter. Mohr was devastated that there would be no organ music on Christmas Eve. His plan was to ask Gruber to write some simple music to go with the words of his poem so that the choir could learn it quickly enough for the evening midnight mass.

Where Phillips Brooks and Lewis Gedner struggled to write O Little Town of Bethlehem, there was just the opposite for Franz Gruber. He quickly penned some simple music and four-part harmony for the chorus, to be accompanied by a guitar.

That evening in 1818, Silent Night was first sung. Little did they know what the future held for their little song. Within 20 years, the song was being sung before king and peasant all across Europe and starting in New York City at Trinity Church it made its way across this land.

During the Civil War, it was not unusual for hostilities to cease for four days starting on December 25, with troops from both sides laying down their arms to come together to worship, share gifts, read Scripture, and sing Silent Night.

Christmas truces were also known to take place during World Wars 1 and 2. It is said that the song was sung simultaneously in English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.

While O Holy Night was the first song broadcast over radio, it would be Silent Night that would be the most popular of songs in the modern age. The first recording is documented to be by the Haydn Quartet in 1905. But it would go on to be recorded by thousands all around the world. Since 1960 it has been recognized as the most recorded song in music history.

Yet, despite its popularity, Silent Night remains in most minds what it was written to be – a simple, direct ode of praise. Created to make a Christmas service more meaningful, the old Austrian carol is as powerful and fresh today as it was on that first Christmas Eve it was sung at St. Nicholas Church. It owes this power to the Good News that it tells – that God loved you and me so much that he sent Jesus to be born to save us from our sins.

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