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'Silent Night' remains essence of the holiday Tradition: A poem penned by a priest and set to music by a teacher was first performed 180 years ago tonight.


In churches across Maryland tonight, as lights dim and candles glow, the soft harmonies of choir voices will fill sanctuaries with the strains of a carol welcoming the birth of Christ.

Holiday anxieties will melt away as worshipers sing what is for so many the high point of the Christmas Eve service:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.

"Stille Nacht," a poem penned by a Austrian priest and set to music by a schoolteacher, was first performed at a Christmas Eve service 180 years ago tonight. From its origin in a small country church near Salzburg, it has endured to become a gentle reminder of the spiritual essence of the Christmas celebration.

"It's a very moving moment," said Dan Fortune, choir director at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore. "For many people, when you get to 'Silent Night,' it's kind of the climax of the theme of the evening, Christ's birth, and that makes the holiday for them."

It's such a simple melody, almost like a lullaby, that the trick is not to muck it up.

"We don't do any big choral arrangement of it," Fortune said. "It's a carol, it's simple; you don't want to wreck anything that's already perfect."

Each church has its own traditions, its own style for singing "Silent Night." The carol will reflect the diversity of St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Northwood, where it will be sung by a gospel choir, with soloists taking verses in German and French. At Zion Church of the City of Baltimore near City Hall, home to Baltimore's German Lutheran community since 1755, "Silent Night" is the last song of the service, sung with lights dimmed, the sanctuary illuminated only by the electric candles on the Christmas tree.

There is a lovely story, often recounted in Sunday school classes, about how "Silent Night" came to be written. It involves a priest, Joseph Mohr, who died 150 years ago. Mohr was the pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg, who discovered on Christmas Eve in 1818 that mice had chewed through the bellows of the organ and it could not be used for the service.

Mohr couldn't bear the thought of midnight Mass without a Christmas hymn. So he went to the church's assistant organist, a schoolteacher named Franz Gruber, gave him some verses he'd scribbled down and asked Gruber to set them to music that could be played on the only instrument available -- a guitar.

A lovely story indeed, but now recognized as more fable than fact.

"No mice, no mice eating the bellows," said Bill Egan, a former Navy photojournalist who has written extensively on the origins of "Silent Night."

Gnawed bellows would not have stopped the Christmas music at St. Nicholas, he said. "It was easy to fix bellows. In fact, it was a very common problem," said Egan from his home in Flagler Beach, Fla. More likely, he said, was that the nearby Salzach River flooded the church, causing the organ to rust and mildew.

Then came the information that Mohr did not write the words to "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve 1818 but penned the poem on which the song would be based two years earlier, when he was assigned to a different church.

The earlier date came to light three years ago, when a woman who volunteered at a Salzburg museum casually mentioned to a staff member that her grandfather left her an early copy of the music for "Silent Night." The original sheet music had been lost, and until then, the earliest versions in Gruber's hand dated from the 1830s.

The woman's manuscript was taken to a handwriting expert, who was able to confirm that it was written by Mohr and date it to about 1820. At the top of the sheet music, Mohr listed the date he wrote the poem as 1816, when he was assigned to a parish in Mariapfarr, Austria. Interestingly, Mohr had been born out of wedlock and grew up without his father, but met a Joseph Mohr in that village who turned out to be his grandfather. Some scholars have speculated that his warm but brief relationship with his elderly relative was an inspiration for the "Silent Night" verses about a father's love for his child.

"I myself like to think of him walking home from seeing his grandfather," Egan said. "He may have been inspired by the beauty of the night and the Alps. But there is no way of knowing exactly what his inspiration was."

For whatever reason, Mohr took his poem to Gruber that Christmas Eve in 1818 and asked him to compose a melody. Neither Mohr nor Gruber could have imagined the journey the song would take from there. The catalyst was a master organ repairman, Karl Mauracher, who was doing some work at St. Nicholas when he came across the song.

"It was after Christmas when he got there, and he found the music," said Charlotte Mueller, a retired college professor living in Ormond Beach, Fla., who was born in Salzburg and is an expert on the carol's origins. "He played it and he liked it and he took it with him. And that is how the song began its journey."

He took it back home with him to the Ziller Valley, where some of the singing families similar to the Trapp Family Singers of "The Sound of Music" began performing it under the title "Tyrolean Folk Song."

One of those families, the Strassers, were glove makers. "To attract attention to their booth at fairs, they would sing it," Egan said.

Another family, the Rainers, brought "Silent Night" to the United States, singing it outside Trinity Church in New York's Wall Street district in 1839. Its modern popularity is due in part to the crooning of Bing Crosby in the 1945 film, "The Bells of St. Mary's," according to the "New Oxford Book of Carols."

The reason for its appeal seems to lie in its simplicity.

"It's just beautiful that this simple song ended up as Austria's Christmas gift to the world," said Wally Bronner, owner of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Mich., who has erected a replica of the Silent Night Chapel that is now on the site of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. The original St. Nicholas Church was damaged by floodwaters and was moved to higher ground in 1906.

"It still brings tears to my eyes to even think about it because of how joyous and solemn people are when they hear it," Bronner said. "It grips them."

Egan has his own theory about why "Silent Night" endures.

"I think it's because anybody can sing it," he said. "It's like a lullaby. You have mothers who sing it to their babies to put them to sleep. And so it gives people a warm feeling to hear it."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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