Silent Night – the fight for survival (#4 in the series)

Joseph Mohr

Joseph Mohr

Time now to meet three other families – all of them crucial in the survival of Silent Night.

First of all, there is the Maurachers. They were the foremost, important organ builders from the town of Fugen in the Zillertal. You need an organ? Call the Maurachers. Your organ is ill? The Maurachers will fix it. During the winter months the Maurachers received many letters about faulty organs – and in springtime the family usually sent off one of the sons to attend to these problems.

In 1819 it was Karl Maraucher’s turn, and he was dispatched to attend to the diseased organs of Tyrol. It was only in May that he finally reached the small village of Oberndorf to see to the mouse-bitten organ of the Church of St Nikola.

Karl was a huge man with a flowing mane, a booming voice and fingers that caressed the notes with surprising gentleness. To be an organ mender, you had to understand the music the instrument made – and Karl was a master of his art.

When he arrived in Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr had been transferred to another congregation. Father Nostler’s letter to the Bishop must have contributed to the obscurity Mohr was destined for. It is sad to think that men with no vision or imagination can ruin the genius of an individual, but that has always been the sad state of affairs over the aeons of time. However, Franzl Gruber was glad to see the mender and showed him the damage the church mouse did.

In those days people still talked to each other. If you came to fix something, the job would only be done after all the circumstances surrounding the calamity had been discussed – and so Karl Mauracher heard all about the dilemma of the Christmas Eve Mass. Gruber told him about the little choir, the guitar and the song. Mauracher was thrilled to hear such a poignant story and wanted to know more. Gruber dug about, got the original (only) score and handed it to the organ expert. After the organ was patched, the huge man sat down in front of the instrument and tested his work by playing Silent Night. He was impressed.

Upon leaving, the page with the music and words went with him. Gruber had no further use for the song that caused Josephh Mohr’s transfer – it had done enough damage and it certainly wouldn’t be sung again in Oberndorf.

History doesn’t record exactly how the song landed up with the second family, the Rainer ensemble. However, in 1822 Kaizer Franz Joseph I of Austria was host to Czar Alexander I of Russia. Count Ludwig von Donhoff (one may assume he was an ambitious nobleman who wanted to score some political points) invited the two heads of state to his castle to enjoy an evening of local entertainment. Amongst the performers was the Family Rainer – the same family that eventually produced the Von Trapp Singers. Remember The Sound of Music? Anyway, the Rainer family sang Silent Night as part of their repertoire, impressing the Czar so much that he invited the singers to visit St. Petersburg. Then the song disappeared for a while. The Trapps had to wait another century for World War II; and the fame the musical would bring with Julie Andrews as the heroine.

It would be a full decade later before the Stasser family contributed to the survival of Silent Night. The Stassers were entrepreneurs. What do you need in Tyrol on cold winter nights? Gloves, of course! The Stassers were masters at the art of making the best, softest, warmest hand-warmers in Austria. They lived in Laimach, the neighbouring town to Fugan, where the organ-builders lived. What made them special? They sang, naturally! The Geschwister Stasser augmented their income by entertaining audiences with their yodelling and their Schuhplatter Tanz – a foot-stomping, rump-slapping dance that made them famous throughout Teutonic Europe.

Every year the Rainer family would travel to the Annual Leipzig Fair, where they’d sell gloves by day and be entertainers at night. Their small audience in 1831 would be remembered only for one single person: Franz Ascher – organist of the Royal Saxon Court Orchestra. He liked the group’s rendition of the song so much, he invited them to sing it again at the Christmas Mass in the Royal Chapel in Pliesenburg. This was an honour indeed. It also presented the entrepreneurial Stassers with an idea: why not arrange a concert or two while they were in Pliesenburg anyway? It was the Christmas season, after all, and extra income was always welcome. The concert was arranged in the ballroom of the Hotel Pologne.

And now we turn to another coincidence.

Silent Night still languished along as a Tyrolian song, a lullaby, an indigenous product of unknown origin. Whenever it appeared on a programme, it carried the little epithet of Authors Unknown. On the night of the concert, a man was ambling along in the street, killing time before retiring to bed. He was Anton Friese, a Dresden music publisher, and he whiled away the time before returning home the next day to his family. It was Christmas time, and he was homesick.

On an impulse (he had nothing better to do, remember?) he turned in to the Hotel Pologne, saw that they had a concert going on there, and so he slipped quietly into the audience. Music was his business and he always found solace in it.

When the Stassers sang Silent Night, it touched Anton Friese in a way no song had done before. In the yearning heart of Herr Friese, the words, the melody, the atmosphere of Christmas came together in a gush of emotion. This song, he knew, was worthy of a much larger audience.

Silent Night came to age that evening. The little poem Joseph Mohr had penned in his loneliness, the melody Franzl Gruber plucked on his guitar and Christmas time finally came together to reach the ears of people who really wanted to be reminded that they all needed to be loved, cherished, reassured and coveted. The nostalgia of the lonely priest had found its solace in the hearts of the audience that night.

When the Stassers fell silent after the song, the audience sat spellbound in complete silence. The Geschwister Stasser stood in front of the completely quiet hall: what was wrong with these people? Didn’t they like it? Were their voices false? Did they sing too softly – or too loudly? If you were there, you’d be able to hear the proverbial pin dropping. The quartet glanced at each other, exchanging worried looks.

Then the audience rose – like a sleeping giant caught off-guard – and cheered themselves hoarse. They became one with the nostalgia of poor Joseph Mohr, the courage of Franzl Gruber and the fight against the unfair Nostler. They remembered fathers and mothers putting them to bed, singing softly. They were reminded of the hopes and dreams of their lives and didn’t want the final little chorus to die away. Jesus der Retter ist da…Jesus der Retter ist da... Wave upon wave of emotion washed through their hearts while the applause went on and on.

Encore! They had to do it again – and they did. This time Anton Friese, tears streaking down his cheeks, was ready with his little black book and a pencil. He jotted down the score and the lyrics in a shorthand of his own. Later, alone in his room and with the song still echoing in his mind, he made the transcription that he would publish later – still under Tyrolian Christmas Song, Authors Unknown. And so, in 1840 Silent Night was published in print for the first time.

Our journey with Silent Night is nearing its end – but questions still linger. Why did the published version differ from Gruber’s melody? There was the claim that the melody was penned by Handel or even Beethoven – so how was that misconception cleared? And what happened to Gruber and Mohr?

While we ponder these questions, there is one fact we may never forget: Silent Night remains an integral part of our Christmases today purely by virtue of a string of coincidences, a line-up on characters so varied and strange and a sequence of events that reads like a fairytale. Yet, when all is said and done, the song did survive. Silent Night had to wait patiently for the right moment, the right audience and the right individuals to carry its message to the world.

In many ways, we need to hear and understand the song and what it is telling us. Patience, it pleads. Wait, it commands. Don’t hurry, it soothes. When your best-laid plans don’t work out – relax. The time and place may not be quite right. But then start looking for the coincidences: the hugely maned Karl Mauracher with the gentle fingers; the forebears of the von Trapps; the invitation to the Czar or the Kaizer; the Rainers. the Stassers, and finally  the lonely man with the little book and pencil, longing to be home. These fine and fragile threads were all so necessary for us to sing Silent Night today, and they all were such unlikely links – yet they were there and held true when the song needed them to survive. There is great comfort to be gained by remembering this. Nothing can be so destructive as the power of the impatient mind…

This Christmas, when we hear the now-immortal words of a lonely priest and the haunting melody of his friend, it’s good to remember how nearly the world had to celebrate the birth of Christ without Silent Night. Then again, the very fact that we’re still here and have the privilege to immerse ourselves in the song, should serve as a reminder that we are like the crumpled little piece of paper in Karl Mauracher’s pocket. We – often unknowingly – form part of a holy chain of events that may only come to fruition in the distant future. Maybe life seems dreary, sad, depressed, insignificant; but in the survival of Silent Night we learn one of Life’s biggest secrets: each of us has a role to play in the Message of Christmas – and not only on the 25th of December.

It took a lonely priest, a broken and sad childhood and a vindictive Nostler to bring us this song. The words and the music were entrusted to ordinary men and women along an extraordinary journey of survival. Not a single one of them could have dreamed what influence their roles would have on millions upon millions of people in 2012. And then, when you listen to Silent Night anew, each of us realise there is a divine plan for everything.

For you, as well.

Broken, Sad, Lonely and Not Now are often the little bricks used in the construction of Joy and Beauty. Let us not forget it. Silent Night won’t let you, anyway…

4 thoughts on “Silent Night – the fight for survival (#4 in the series)

  1. Herman of

    Amos, thank you!
    Thank you for gathering these facts, many unknown to me. Thank you for your interpretation and application of them to everyday life!
    May you and your loved ones have a Christ blessed Christmas!
    You are a true blessing to my and my wife!
    God bless!

  2. seeker

    Somehow the sweetest song tells the saddest tale. To know the history of it is just like weaving a delicate web, all connected as you said a Divine Plan. As for patience, I do believe it was done in God’s time. How can one forget when a mere baby Jesus is the hero in my life. I am so glad that you are writing about this joyous occasion. Bless you, Amos.


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