Joseph Mohr, Franz Xaver Gruber — 1818
For a season that’s defined by its joyful atmosphere, Christmas music can cover a lot of ground tonally. If you’re hosting a holiday party and you want to get people moving, there’s a handful of playful tracks to fit the mood, but similarly if you wanted something reassuring and comforting, you can easily find a lengthy playlist or two to pair with a blanket and a peppermint mocha. For the sleepy, easy-going Christmas song lover, the go-to classic is “Silent Night,” a song so laid back it’s literally describing the newborn Jesus sleeping in his manger.
Unlike a lot of classic carols, the background of “Silent Night” is surprisingly straightforward. It has a lyricist and a composer, which in the realm of Christmas music is charmingly novel.
It all starts in a church in 1816 Mariapfarr, a village in present-day Austria. Father Joseph Mohr, a hip, young priest, penned the words to a soon-to-be song called “Stille Nacht,” and like George Harrison’s solo work during the Beatles’ later years, proceeded to sit on that banger until he found the right collaborator. Mohr grew up singing in choirs and playing violin, but his only writing credit is “Silent Night,” making him the world’s greatest one-hit-wonder, surpassing legends like “Macarena”-masters Los del Rio or Montreal’s Men Without Hats.
In 1817, Mohr landed a gig as assistant priest at the aptly named St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf, where he met Franz Xavier Gruber, a composer, church organist, schoolmaster, and possible ancestor to Die Hard villain Hans Gruber. After getting to know each other, Mohr decided Gruber was the guy he needed to finish his song, and so Mohr walked the three kilometers to Gruber’s home in the neighbouring village of Arnsdorf and presented him with the lyrics.
Now despite writing the lyrics to a Christmas carol two years prior, Mohr decided to wait until the late afternoon of Christmas eve to dump his words on Gruber and ask him to compose a tune in time for midnight mass that evening. He also needed Gruber to compose something for guitar, because a recent flood of the nearby Salzach River damaged the church’s organ. Gruber put down his Vanillekipferl, downed a case of Monster, and composed the song in only a few hours, and that night the new piece was performed at St. Nicholas to the Christmas Eve congregation.
The piece was well received, and caught the attention of the song’s first outspoken super fan, Karl Mauracher. Mauracher is an interesting character, because unlike many carols where their dissemination is slow and carried from church-to-church or community-to-community, Mauracher is pretty much solely responsible for getting the song out to the world. Without him, the song may have just stayed in in St. Nicholas.
Mauracher was an organ builder who serviced the Obendorf church, and according to Gruber, was so taken with “Stille Nacht” that he took the song with him to his home in the Zillertal, a valley in Tyrol, Austria, where he presented it to two traveling families of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers. The two families included the new carol in their shows and they began performing it around 1819.
For the time, traveling singers were the way music got around, like giant, human-sized mixtapes. They would perform all over the place and turn people onto new music, and in the case of the Rainers, occasionally their songs would reach some high-profile ears. Within the next few years “Stille Nacht” won over some big fans like Emperor Franz I of Austria and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
In the 1830s and 40s the song was gaining popularity wherever it went. In 1839, the Rainers brought the song to America and debuted the tune in New York City, and by the 40s it became well known across Germany and was reported to be a favourite of King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Also around this time the melody was slightly modified, more closely resembling the version we’re familiar with today.
The original manuscript (which I can only imagine was written on an old grocery list found in Gruber’s kitchen) was lost around this time, and with it Mohr’s contribution to the song was obscured. Gruber was still known to have written the music, but many people started assuming someone more famous composed the melody, like Hayden or Mozart. This rumour floated around for nearly 200 years, and was only broken in 1995 someone discovered another manuscript penned by Mohr and dated 1820 that confirmed the song’s credits.
The song’s arrival in the United States lead to the same fate that finds most European exports that cross the Atlantic: a new version. Like The Office and Nazis, an American variant was on its way, and in this case we have Episcopal priest John Freeman Young to thank. He was serving in Trinity Church in New York City when he wrote and published an English translation, and it’s that version that we’re most familiar with now. Given the song’s popularity, it’s no surprise that today the song is available in around 140 languages, some public domain, some not.
Because anyone can perform and record the song without paying a penny in royalties, pretty much everyone has taken a stab at the track in pretty much every style and genre. It’s one of the few songs where you can compare versions from Julia Andrews and Boys II Men. However, they aren’t all equal. Bing Crosby’s version is the fourth best-selling single of all-time, only behind Bing’s “White Christmas,” Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997/Sometime About the Way You Look Tonight,” and Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.”
Personally I’m partial to the intensity of Mahalia Jackson’s 1962 recording. With Mahalia, there’s a conviction to it that doesn’t make it into every recording. To her it’s not just a popular song to fit onto a Christmas record, but a celebration.
“Silent Night” has also taken on a unique second life in recent years. Given its peaceful melody, the carol has unintentionally become a pick for artists looking to write more socially critical pieces. Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 version, “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night” closes their record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and takes the softness of the original and juxtaposes it with a recording of a news bulletin of the events of August 3, 1966. It contrasts the sweetness of the carol and all its sentiment with the harshness and social-political struggles of 1960s America, and by the end of the song, the carol is completely overtaken by newscaster Charlie O’Donnell’s dry voiceover.
Singer-songwriter David Bazan also took a similar position on his 2005 rendition of the carol, overlaying the original verses with a second set of lyrics questioning the violence and religious warfare carried out following, and as the result of, the nativity story.
Compared to some other classic carols, “Silent Night” has a true legacy. In 2011 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared “Silent Night” to be an “intangible cultural heritage,” meaning it’s critical to the cultural makeup of the area it originates from, and right now, you can also visit the Silent Night Chapel, an adorable structure erected after St. Nicholas’s church was destroyed by flooding in the late 1890s.
“Silent Night” has never been a favourite of mine, but it’s hard to imagine the holidays without it. With more bombastic Christmas tunes like “All I Want for Christmas is You” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” blaring through mall PAs, advertisements, and pop radio stations everywhere you go, “Silent Night” is this cozy little island in the middle of the noise. It’s sleepy and it can be a bit dull, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a season that can easily suffocate you.