A few notes about 'Silent Night'

Putting to rest the myth about how quickly this beloved carol was created.

Classical Music

December 24, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

It came upon a Midnight Mass, when the snow-draped Austrian countryside in solemn stillness lay, that the organ of St. Nicholas' Church in the quaint little riverside village of Oberndorf was kaput. It was Christmas Eve, exactly 182 years ago today.

Mice had chewed through some of the instrument's innards, and the assistant pastor, the Rev. Joseph Mohr, was anxious to find some sort of substitute music for the service. He happened to be a decent guitarist, so all he needed was a song to play.

Mohr walked over to the next village, Arnsdorf, where his organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, lived. Mohr asked Gruber to compose a tune for words the priest had hastily written. In short order, Gruber produced a brand new carol and arranged it for two voices -- theirs -- and guitar. The freshly created piece was called, in German, "Stille Nacht" -- "Silent Night."

And the rest is Christmas carol history.

Or myth.

Recent scholarship casts some doubts on the origins of "Silent Night," the world's favorite Christmas carol, which has been translated into at least 230 languages. It seems that Mohr penned the six verses of the song not under pressure on that fateful Christmas Eve of 1818, but about two years earlier, before he was even assigned to St. Nicholas' parish. And the story about Gruber coming up with his melody only a few hours before its first performance may be a bit of poetic license, too. Some suggest he got started on Dec. 23; others suspect he had written it even earlier.

The organ really was broken, however, although probably not because of mice. The church was susceptible to flooding from the nearby river (the entire village was relocated in 1905 because of that threat), and the organ bellows were often damaged by mildew.

Still, even without the extra embellishments, the circumstances surrounding "Silent Night" are worth retelling. For that matter, so are the stories behind many other favorite Christmas carols, which will be getting a workout in churches and on radio and television sets across the globe tonight and tomorrow.

Adapted for Christmas

Carols have been part of Western culture since before the Dark Ages, though they were secular -- downright pagan -- in nature at first. They were a form of folk song, associated with the coming of spring, and had dance rhythms. Eventually, they were adapted by Christians and given new texts about the birth of Jesus.

By the 1100s, Christmas carols were commonly sung in Italy around creches set up in churches; in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi famously held a Christmas Mass that included carols. By the 1300s, most of Europe and the United Kingdom were embracing and enriching the tradition of carols. There were occasional attempts over the centuries, notably by the Puritans, to banish carols from church services, but such actions invariably proved futile.

Today, it is impossible to imagine Christmas without carols. Easter, arguably the more significant holy day for Christians, never produced as much universally popular music, while the Nativity continues to inspire new carols, especially in England.

But the old favorites are not likely to be replaced anytime soon, if ever. For various reasons and in various ways, they have struck deep chords within people. Something in the musical simplicity and basic message of these time-tested carols continues to hit home.

The simplicity of "Silent Night," not to mention the warmth of its words, is a strong case in point. It is universally recognized as a quintessential Christmas carol, its gentle, lullaby rhythm and disarming melody perfectly matching the image of the Nativity. But it wasn't necessarily a case of love at first hearing. We may not know much about what the first listeners of the carol thought when Gruber and Mohr sang it alongside a creche in a side chapel of that Austrian church (some versions place the two performers at the main altar). But we can make a good guess. "Silent Night" apparently went over like a lead snowman on Dec. 24-25, 1818.

Well, maybe it wasn't that bad, but it took quite a while before the carol started to register on the Christmas Hit Parade. The organ repairman who eventually showed up at Oberndorf a few days after that Midnight Mass found a copy of "Silent Night," liked it and spread it around on his subsequent travels through the region.

Still, the song did not catch on quickly. Ian Bradley, in his indispensable sourcebook, "The Penguin Book of Carols," says that "Silent Night" might have "sunk without a trace, alongside hundreds of other Austrian folk carols, had a manuscript copy of it not come into the hands of Josef Strasser, a glove-maker and folk-music enthusiast who had a family singing group in the best 'Sound of Music' tradition."

'They're playing our song'

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