When Franzl and Joseph inspected the damaged organ on the day before Christmas in 1818, it became patently clear that the organ would be silent until spring melted the snow to allow the organ mender to get to their village. To have a Christmas Eve Mass without music would be unthinkable; to confront Father Nostler with the news would be ridiculous. There was no way either of them was going to face the wrath of the strict old man. No, they had to come up with some other solution…
Maybe, they thought, they could have the choir sing a cappella, hoping that they would manage without instrumental support. But what to sing? What is simple enough, easy enough, to teach the choir in an afternoon’s time? The two men were desperate to find an answer.
This is when Jospeh Mohr produced the page on which he had written a poem recently.
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Nur die traute heilige Paar
Holder Knabe im lockigten Haar
Schlafen in himmlischer Ruh…
If, after all these years, we read these lines, we get to understand them a bit better – especially if we remember the life of Joseph Mohr, illegitimate son of a deserter. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think his childhood must have been horrible. Look at the words carefully: it is actually a lullaby; the perfect picture of a baby being rocked to sleep by two adoring parents. Were the words the result of many a forlorn evening during which a lonely, unwanted child wished he had a normal family?
Of course, the English translation focussed much more on Jesus and the Afrikaans translation even brings in Joseph, the earthly father of Christ. In the original German, the one Joseph Mohr wrote, the accent is on the infant that may rest, because Jesus der Retter ist da (Jesus the Saviour is there – not born as the words got translated). It would be totally wrong (if typical of human nature) to start a debate here on what exactly Joseph Mohr had in mind when he penned the words. The point I’m trying to make is the obvious one: Joseph Mohr maybe wrote these words for a thousand reasons – but certainly not to be sung at the main Christmas Eve Mass as a carol. Next time you hear the words, it won’t be wrong to think of all the lonely children who wished they had somebody to love them.
But let’s return to the two men next to the broken organ. Franzl was impressed by the simple words his friend had written. Maybe…just maybe…
Now that they found a ray of hope, all he had to do was to put a melody to the words. As the more musical of the two, he stuffed the bit of paper in a coat pocket and trudged back home through the snow. He promised Joseph he’d give it his best shot. The instrument he chose to use for the melody? The spinet his father bought him, of course! The same one that came as an apology because Papa Gruber initially refused Franzl’s plea for music lessons. Only when he thought he had the music sort-of-sorted out, did he take his guitar from the wall to play and sing the song for the first time.
That afternoon Mohr, Gruber and twelve children gathered in the priest’s small study. Six of the choir’s best boys and six of the girls had been selected to participate in the gamble to ensure music and song accompanied the evening’s sermon by Father Nostler. Twelve children and two men to substitute for the full choir and the solemn organ – in the hope that the congregation would be pleased and that Nostler would be satisfied. Even if the children could memorise the words and remember the melody, there was one more little issue to consider: Gruber would accompany the choir on his guitar! They were on the verge of testing Father Nostler’s short temper to the utmost.
That evening the congregation gathered in the little cathedral. Of course the news of the organ’s problem had spread through the community and it is fair to assume that curiosity contributed to attendance that evening. Nostler knew about the organ, of course, and assumed that the choir would sing an appropriate song – but no choir was gathered on the balcony. We can only guess at his irritation – what was Mohr up to?
Father Nostler gave his usual, solemn Christmas sermon, citing Luke 2:1-14 and reminding the congregation of the miracle in Bethlehem. After he finished he closed the Bible and looked up at the empty seat in front of the organ. Where was the choir?
This was the signal for Mohr, Gruber and the twelve children to march in from the vestry to arrange themselves before the altar. Gruber’s guitar was decorated with red and green streamers, the girls wore them in their hair and the boys had the same streamers folded into rosettes attached to their stockings. The congregation gasped. Father Nostler held up a hand to put a stop to the proceedings. Nobody was going to ridicule the birth of Jesus with fancy streamers and a guitar, for goodness’ sake!
Joseph Mohr ignored the priest’s attempt to stop the little choir from singing and addressed the audience. He told them about the organ and said that he and Gruber had prepared a special song for the occasion. Without further ado (and without a glance to Nostler) Gruber shifted his guitar into position and plucked the first notes.
Mohr with his fine tenor voice and Gruber with his baritone fell in with Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!. The melody and the words blended perfectly. When they came to the end of the first verse, the children fell in with Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh… The clear young voices held the audience in their spell as they repeated the line as a benediction.
The verses followed each other until the children assured the congregation that Jesus the Saviour is here. Then complete silence descended on the people in the church. The song had a profound effect on the congregation – and on Nostler. He rushed through the communion and immediately retired to his study to write an outraged letter to the Bishop of Salzburg.
Mohr and Gruber stood at the door as the congregation filed out. They wanted to know what the people thought about their song even if they knew that Nostler was hugely upset. The reaction was mixed, to say the least. Some thought the song was acceptable, a few complimented the melody and yet others thought it was a sort-of reasonable substitute for the real Christmas songs they were used to.
When the last worshippers disappeared into the crisp night, the two men stood alone for a while. They had similar thoughts: Nostler was going to have their heads for this. Then again, the congregation seemed mildly pleased with their effort and surely they did the best they could under the circumstances?
Gruber held out his hand to his friend. “Merry Christmas, Joseph.”
As it turned out, Silent Night resurfaced again many years later; but the rendition of the song on Christmas Eve, 1818, may well have been the last.
Let’s leave the later history of Silent Night for the moment and consider the background once more. When faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, we often turn to others to solve them. We stick to convention and work within the rules. What Gruber and Mohr did, was to face the issue and make the most with what they had. Mohr’s harsh childhood may have driven him to a wasted life and he could have blamed his absent father for many things – but he didn’t.
Mohr did what we all do from time to time – he dreamt of love. He wrote a poem about the perfect family. And when the time came, he shared his poem with the world. Although he was destined to be a poor priest all his life, he gave us all one of the most precious gifts – one that is new and fresh every year when we gather to wish each other Merry Christmas.
One more thing: we all have Nostlers in our lives. Whenever we venture into the unknown, Father Nostler is there to remind us that the earth is flat and we’re going to fall off the edge if we test the horison. Today being the end of the Mayan calendar is a perfect example of how the Nostlers of the world affect some of us. Look carefully at your colleagues, family and friends – Notsler is there to prevent you from achieving the (seemingly) impossible. And yet, if you have the courage to pursue your dreams, you’ll find that Nostler is wrong: the horison is not the end.
So, how did Silent Night survive? In the rest of the story we’ll meet organ fixers, kings and famous composers. Gruber didn’t become famous overnight (not even in his lifetime) and Mohr died penniless – yet it remains the world’s favourite Christmas song. Silent Night isn’t only a song; it has become the symbol of overcoming adversity. It’s there to encourage us when the odds against us are stacked sky-high. It brought hope to soldiers in trenches; it encouraged others over the years in times of hardship. It’ll bring solace to the folks in Connecticut and a thousand other homes where an empty chair reminds them of unimaginable sadness. Like in the past, it will be sung with the same nostalgic longing in far-off mission stations, in snow-bound little Alpine villages, in the mud-and-grass huts on Africa’s plains, and in the great cathedrals of many magnificent cities. Jesus, the saviour, is there…
Mohr’s desire for joy and beauty was not in vain.
But, like I said: never rush a good ending…