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'Silent Night' debuted 200 years ago

In December 1914, not long after the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), the allied forces of French and English armies fought against German armies day after day in a region in northern France that was occupied by German armies. One night, after fighting in the trenches less than 100 meters away from each other, the soldiers in both camps were preparing for the next day’s fight. Just then, they heard a fine tenor voice singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” from the German camp. As the tired soldiers listened to this familiar song, a soldier began to play the tune with a harmonica. There was a short silence after the first verse, and then a Scottish soldier in the English camp played the second verse with a bagpipe. Against the backdrop of the beautiful melody in the winter cold night, the English soldiers began to sing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and then the French soldiers joined in with their chorus of “Douce Nuit, Sainte Nuit…” In that moment, the English, French, and German soldiers, though they spoke in different languages and were of different nationalities, sang together with peace and in one mind.

This is a scene from the 2005 French movie “Joyeux Noel” (Merry Christmas),which was directed by Christian Carion and is about the true story of the unofficial truce on Christmas Eve in 1914. The movie shows how this song relieved the tension in the war and aided the efforts towards a truce by celebrating the birth of Jesus.

In 1818, exactly 200 years ago, in a very small town called Oberndorf (17 kilometers north of Salzburg in Austria, the birth place of Mozart), Joseph Mohr, a priest in the St. Nicholas Church, had some issues with the organ as he was preparing for the Christmas Eve mass. Therefore, he needed to find a song that could be accompanied by a guitar instead of an organ. He remembered that he had written a poem about the birth of baby Jesus two years ago, so he brought it to Franz Xaver Gruber, a church organist, and asked him to compose the melody for the poem. Gruber composed the melody within a few hours, and they sang the first “Silent Night, Holy Night” at that Christmas Eve mass.

As time went by, Joseph Mohr was forgotten about and people credited the song to Gruber, who continued to work as choir conductor and organist. People also thought that Mozart, Hayden or Beethoven could have been the composer of the song. However, in 1995, Joseph Mohr’s handwritten copy of the poem was discovered, so Gruber and Mohr were confirmed as the official composers, and the song was declared as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011.

According to Franz Xaver Gruber, Karl Mauracher, who often came to the church to fix the organ, fell in love with the song and introduced it to two performing families, the Strassers and Rainers. They began including the song in their show programs, and by 1819, the song became widely known to people.

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) composed the melody for the song. He was married three times after his first two wives passed away, and he lived his whole life as an educator and musician.

Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) was born in a very poor family in Salzburg. His father was often not home because he was a low-rank soldier, so Mohr grew up under his godfather, an executioner. He died as a priest, working the small town of Wagrain. When he died, he left nothing because he had contributed all his money and possessions for the elderly and for children’s education. The Joseph Mohr School, which was built in his memory, is still open near his burial site.

Though Mohr was a poor priest in a small town, he left an immortal song in the hearts of all people who worship Jesus as the King of Peace with an earnest desire for the peace of heaven to come into this world. “Silent Night, Holy Night” has been sung by countless people and has been translated into several languages.

In the name of Jesus, who came as light and love in the hope of a warm and beautiful winter to all, “Joyeux Noel!”

Youngsuck Kim (ykim@mansfield.edu) is a professor of music at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.

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