It was a ‘Silent Night’ indeed when this beloved song was first composed. If not for a broken pipe organ, the world likely would have been without its most popular Christmas carol.
Perhaps it was that very silence that inspired the Reverend Joseph Mohr to pen those now-famous words in 1818. At the time, it was probably sheer desperation rather than inspiration that motivated him.
As Father Mohr prepared for Christmas Eve Mass in his church in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf, someone discovered that the church’s ancient organ was out of commission. With only a few days to go and the nearest repairman several days journey away, it appeared as though Mass would have to commence without musical accompaniment.
Feeling thwarted in his efforts to plan a memorable Christmas, Fr. Mohr set about to manufacture another plan. This was in the midst of all of his regular parish duties, including the blessing of a newborn infant. On this particular call, Fr. Mohr was suddenly struck by the words to what is now known as “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht” in his native tongue. Quickly, so as not to lose the lines that were rapidly filling his brain, he finished his call and raced home. Here he penned four stanzas, the first of which reads in English:
Silent Night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon’ virgin, Mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in Heavenly peace.
When he had set his words to parchment, he called upon his colleague, Franz Gruber, the musician who trained the parish choir. He managed to finagle from him the fact that, in addition to his organ prowess, Gruber was also a guitar player. Gruber emphatically informed him, however, that his guitar skills were less than proficient. Undeterred, Mohr presented the words to his new poem to Gruber. Rounding up a dusty, little-used guitar, the two men composed the song that would provide music for Oberndorf’s Christmas Mass.
It was unlikely at the time that either Mohr or Gruber had any inkling of the impact they would have on history. In fact, the song disappeared into near obscurity for a decade. It was then that “Silent Night” fell into the hands of the Strasser family of Zillertal Valley.
The four young, musically-trained Strasser children spent many an hour drumming up business for their parents’ glove-making business by singing in front of the shop. In a manner not unlike a modern talent agent discovering some secret talent in the unlikeliest of places, “Silent Night” was introduced to the Strassers. Rearranged from two-part to four-part harmony, the Strasser children were catapulted to instant renown with their rendition. Valley residents renamed it “The Song From Heaven,” since the Strasser children sounded so much like a choir of angels when they performed it. They sang so beautifully, in fact, the Strassers were invited to perform it before kings and queens.
It may have been a king who placed “Silent Night” indelibly on the lips of Christendom. King Frederick William IV of Prussia heard it sung some 22 years after the Strasser children began performing “The Song from Heaven.” Afterward, he declared that it should “be given first place in all future Christmas concerts” within the domain of his rule. Whether it really was or not isn’t certain. What is certain is that “Silent Night” breached King Frederick’s bounds to become loved the world over.