The origin of the Christmas carol known as Silent Night (German: ‘Stille Nacht’) was a poem that was written in 1816 in the alpine village of Mariapfarr, by Josef Mohr, an Austrian Catholic priest. On December 24, 1818, as curate of a newly erected parish-church, St. Nicola of Oberndorf, he handed over a poem to the deputy organist and choir conductor, Franz Gruber, with the request to compose a suitable melody for two solo voices with choir and the accompaniment of one guitar. As Mohr was an excellent guitarist, Gruber composed the now-familiar melody in an arrangement for two voices with choir and guitar. The two men sang Silent Night for the first time at Christmas Mass in St Nichola while Mohr played guitar and the choir repeated the last two lines of each verse.
After its premiere, the first copies of the song seemed to have appeared in the geographical vicinity of the song’s two creators. According to historical documents, the earliest copies belonged to vicars, singers, choir directors, organists, and school teachers in various towns and villages in Salzburg. Considered a national treasure in Austria, Silent Night was eventually spread beyond Austrian borders by two ‘singing’ families from Zillertal, Rainer and Strasser. Both families undertook extensive travels throughout Europe performing various songs in Germany and England as early as the 1820s. The first documented recital of the song outside of Austria occurred in December 1832 in Leipzig (Germany), where it was well-received. The following year, the song was first published by A.R. Friese in Dresden and Leipzig (Germany) in a book called, Eight Original Tyrolean Songs. However, no mention was made of the songs’ authors and it differed considerably from its original version. Silent Night started its final spread to all corners of the globe on Christmas Day, 1839, when the Rainer family was on tour in the U.S. for four years and gave a recital of the song in New York in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial at Trinity Church’s cemetery at the end of Wall Street. Catholic and Protestant missionaries further helped spread the song.
In 1854, the origin of Silent Night was documented by Franz Xaver Gruber as a result of a request by the Royal Prussian Court Orchestra in Berlin to the Benedictine Monastery in Salzburg, where they hoped to find the original song, which they presumed had been composed by Michael Haydn. This document describing Gruber’s involvement with the carol are the only words written from first-hand knowledge about Silent Night. Gruber gives no mention of the specific inspiration for creating the song. According to the song’s history provided by Austria’s Silent Night Society, one supposition is that the church organ was no longer working, so that Mohr and Gruber therefore created a song for accompaniment by guitar. Some believe that Mohr simply wanted a new Christmas carol that he could play on his guitar. The Society says that there are “many romantic stories and legends” that add their own anecdotal details to the known facts. Until 2006, it was thought that Mohr and Gruber had collaborated on just one song. Now another song has been located in the Wagrain parish archive by the Salzburg Diocesan Archives. ‘Te Deum’ with text by Joseph Mohr and melody by Franz Gruber can be heard in an audio exhibit at the Waggerl Museum in Wagrain, Austria. Josef Mohr died on December 4, 1848 in Wagrain, which became his final resting place. Franz Xaver Gruber died in 1863 at the age of 76 in Hallein. Here is Silent Night (‘Stille Nacht’) sung in its language of origin… German.