This is part 25 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Well, it would seem that for years (most of my time in ministry) I have unknowingly be misleading congregations about this particular carol. I shared as truth what apparently is a legend that is based in a nice story but doesn’t seem to be rooted in a great deal of truth.
The legend says that Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest of a relatively new congregation, St. Nicholas, in Oberndorf, Austria discovered mice had eaten holes in the bellows of the church organ to the point it would not play for Midnight Mass and it was impossible to get the organ fixed on time. After praying, Mohr wrote out the words of a poem he titled, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, translated it is “Silent Night, Holy Night.” After completing the poem he took it to Franz Gruber, the town school teacher and the church organist. Mohr asked Gruber if he could compose a simple tune that could be played on the guitar. It would be a song for two voices and a choir. Gruber was impressed by the poem and immediately went to work. When he completed the work (all this, according to the legend, happened on Christmas Eve, leading up to Midnight Mass), together Gruber and Mohr taught the choir and the great carol premiered at Midnight Mass in 1818 with Mohr singing tenor and playing the guitar and Gruber singing bass.
It is a sweet story and a story I have shared, I am not sure how many times in my 26 years in ministry, most recently last night. Thinking I knew this story, I didn’t even bother to do any research before Christmas Eve worship last night. Imagine my surprise when I started reading….
As I read Ace Collins account of the story, I found the legend I was telling as truth, probably wasn’t truth at all. Collins went on to say though the congregation was relatively young, the organ was quite old and in the cold, it just decided not to work and that it had little, if anything to do with the bellows.
I wasn’t going to just take Collins’ word for it. I had heard the legend too many times for me to just give up that this wasn’t true. But then, as I researched further, not only did I find no real evidence for mice eating the bellows, I also discovered that Collins’ version of things may well be a legend all its own.
The truth is, no one knows for sure why Mohr took the poem to Gruber for musical composition. We do know that Mohr loved guitar music, but that is hardly the musical instrument of choice for Midnight Mass in most locations. It also does seem that something was wrong as Mohr took the poem to Gruber for musical composition on Christmas Eve so haste was important. But, Mohr didn’t hastily write the words. All sources seem to be in agreement that he had written the words in 1816, two years before Gruber composed the tune. They performed the carol and it was well-received with the congregation asking about the song during Christmas of 1819.
Another known element is, an organ builder, Karl Mauracher, learned of the song and obtained a copy of the manuscript. He taught it to others and it began to grow in popularity. When the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, loved the song and had his choir sing it each year during Christmas. His interest contributed to the spread of the song throughout Europe. Another element helping the spread were Austrian family groups. One of these groups, The Rainers, performed the carol in New York in 1839. Thus gave the carol its start in its spread across the United States.
To date, there are more than 300 translations of the hymn from its original German. It is also the most recorded song in history. Bing Crosby’s recording of “Silent Night,” is, depending on who you ask, the second or third best selling Christmas song of all time trailing only Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and possibly Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
For many years, adding to the legend, it was common to give Bach or Beethoven credit for the Carol despite Gruber’s ability to produce an early manuscript. These debates finally seemed to have ended in 1996 when music historians authenticated an early manuscript, signed by Mohr were he wrote that the music was written by Gruber.
According to Collin’s writing, when Mohr discovered the organ would not play, he stopped and said a quick prayer and when he ended that prayer he remembered the poem “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” and dug through his things to find the original poem. Mohr believed God helped him remember his old poem.
When has God reminded you of a previous work?
Cindy and I want to wish each of you a very blessed Christmas. May the Spirit of the Christ-child be born again in you this Christmastide.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.