Silent Night – the Story with no End

Franz Gruber

Franz Gruber

Our journey with the history of Silent Night is drawing to an end. The work of Gruber and Mohr had been published under Authors Unknown by Anton Friese and although the melody was not the original score by Franzl Gruber, at least the words were preserved.

Other publications started featuring Silent Night as well and in 1844 and 1848 it was included in Finck’s and Dr. Gebhardt’s collections of Tyrolean songs.

But, much more important than the printed version was the way the song spread from home to home, from town to city and from country to country. There was an irresistible charm to the simplicity, the harmony and the beauty of the lyrics and its melody. It was a song for commoners and royalty alike; poor people sang it around their meagre collection of hand-made presents; congregations loved its harmony and kings joined in when the smartly dressed choirs sang it at Christmas time.

More and more people started wondering about the origin of Silent Night. Over time it was ascribed to Beethoven, Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn and his younger brother Michael – but uncertainty remained.

Today the ski-resort of Wagrain in the Arlberg is the vibrant playground of the rich and the fortunate. Way back in 1828 it was a poor village with a simple chapel. When Joseph Mohr was appointed as vicar of the parish, it was a lateral promotion to obscurity. For twenty years he laboured as much-loved priest and friend and when the song was published in 1848 in Berlin, he died a poor and penniless man. It is said that his only pleasure was the rare evenings he spent with the farmers in the local Bierstube, where the songs of Tyrol were given new life by his fine tenor voice. His funeral was as unpresumptuous as his life –with no funds of his own, the community interned his body in a simple grave.

According to a later statement by Gruber, Joseph Mohr wrote many a poem and song in his life – but none remains for us to celebrate the life of this humble priest. His only work, his only contribution, still alive today, is the lullaby he wrote in his loneliness.

We have no picture of Mohr – no sketch, no painting, nothing. When at last, in 1912 he was credited for writing the famous song, it was decided to exhume his remains, to examine his skull and pay a sculptor to reconstruct an image of his appearance. There was a problem, though: in the neglected pauper’s graveyard the gravestones had become eroded, some had fallen over and some graves were unmarked. In the end the oldest people of the parish had to point out where the grave was and the sculptor could start working on the grizzly task at hand. The bust he constructed was destined for the small memorial chapel in honour of Silent Night.

Life was less harsh on Franz Gruber. When he was appointed as choirmaster and organist in the church in Hallein (a bustling town not far from Salzburg), he could finally immerse himself in music for the rest of his life. When he died at the age of 75, he left behind 90 compositions, mostly of a religious nature. He had sired 12 children and lived a comfortable and happy life. His children inherited some of his musical talent and one may assume that many an evening was filled with music and song in the Gruber home. It is not known whether he ever saw Joseph Mohr again. Because of his stature in society, he had a painting done in his middle age and some photographs of him in his later years were preserved.

Both these men must have known that the song was sung in various places under the tag ofAuthors Unknown. What Mohr’s reasons were for not claiming authorship, we can only guess. Gruber later stated that the transcript by Anton Friese contained not the exact music he had written. Friese’s version, we must remember, was jotted down in shorthand and later transcribed, which explains the discrepancy. However, Gruber and Mohr didn’t think about claiming ownership – it wasn’t important to them. What was important was that people embraced their song. In contrast to the rejection of Father Nostler, it was through the voices of so many simple folk that Gruber and Mohr found their reward.

So, how do we know that these two gentlemen actually were responsible for Silent Night? There are different versions of this part of the story, but I prefer the one involving choir director Herr P. Ambrosius Prennsteiner of the Benedictine Monastry of St. Peter in Salzburg.

In 1854 the Abbot wrote him a letter, conveying the request by the Kapelmeister of the King’s Orchestra in Berlin for a copy of the score for Silent Night, presumably by Michael Haydn. The reason for this approach was that the younger Haydn had been Kapelmeister there for 43 years before his death in 1806; and it was presumed that the score would be in the extensive library along with the other 350 compositions he had written during his tenure there.

The Kapelmeister knew that such a search would take ages. However, he had several students under his care and by one of those inexplicable twists of fate, he chose young Felix Gruber to assist in the quest. Felix, as you may gather, was the youngest son of…(wait for it and enjoy the moment)…Franzl Gruber! When told to look for the score of Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, the young Gruber exclaimed that this song did not originate by Michael Haydn’s hand, but was written by his father, Franzl. Although the Kapelmeister must have doubted the words of the boy, he did write to Herr Gruber.

Not long afterwards the Director of the King’s Orchestra in Berlin received a letter containing, amongst others, a sheet of music titled, Weinachtslied. The letter contained a short and very modest description of the events leading up to that mass on the  evening of the 24th December.

Skip ahead to 1867 when Durlichter published a handbook on Pongau, the area in Austria stretching from St Johann to Wagrain. Of the little village of Wagrain not much could be said, except that it had been the parish of Joseph Mohr, who, along with Franz Gruber of Hallein, wrote Silent Night. It was the first ‘official’ acknowledgement of their combined effort in 1818. By this time, however, both of them were dead.


Such then, is the story of the most famous of Christmas songs. But come now, on the eve of Christmas, and join me in the village of Oberndorf, where the choir and people with less musical voices will join in the singing of Silent Night. Look for the gathering of crowds on the exact spot where the song was born. Bring along some warm mittens – preferably of the calfskin variety that made the Stassers famous. Watch with me as Franzl Gruber’s original guitar is carefully unpacked from its case and the guitar player turns the screws on the handle to make sure the notes are exactly right. If we’re lucky, a sprinkling of snow will float down on the crowd – a blessing on the memory of the two men whose friendship and determination sought to undo the damage the mouse had done to an ancient organ in 1818.

And then, with the plaintive notes of the guitar as guide, soar with the voices of the Rainers, the Stassers, the peasants and kings, to sing the song that causes the lump in your throat. Hear again the loneliness of Mohr and the brilliance of Gruber as tears streak down your cheek to freeze on your collar. And when the last sounds drift away into the mighty peaks of the white Alps, there will be an awed silence, an emotional quiet, when not a single member of the gathering dares to say anything.

For it is in the peace that follows the song that the true power of Silent Night becomes evident. It is a lullaby for us all: there to comfort our worries, to support hope, to spread love and goodwill and to reassure us that Jesus der Retter ist Da… We may, indeed, rest in heavenly peace.

One last act is necessary before we leave the town of Oberndorf. Join me at the local Bierstube for a glass of glühwein. Let us lift our glasses high and toast the memory of two remarkable men – men who sought not glory or fame, but who were content to leave us the music and words of a humble song. In their small way, they changed the world for the better; may it continue doing so for all generations to come.

Franzl Gruber and Joseph Mohr: we salute you! Kings and Presidents will come and go. Most of them will be forgotten. But your song, your Silent Night, will be with us forever.

I said a good ending can never be rushed, and it is so with this story. I cannot write The End underneath this one. It has no end. You will sing the song with your loved ones and your children. They will do so with theirs. And so the echoes of Silent Night will pass from generation to generation, evoking emotion and comforting us for the years ahead.

Parents should tell this story to their children:

It started with a mouse….and it has no end.


19 thoughts on “Silent Night – the Story with no End

  1. seeker

    This is what I call a story. The ending is excellent, started with a mouse…has no ending for it will be told over and over again. I took the liberty of sharing this story to my family, Amos. It is worth sharing. A toast, from my cup of tea, saludo!. Goodnight, Amos. From now on, I will be a little bit kinder to a mouse.

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Heehee – we’ll start the Be-Kind-to-Mice movement, then! Please share the story – we should honour Silent Night and it’s creators for leaving us a song and a story that seems so impossible, nobody would believe the plot if somebody tried to write a fictional account of such nature. Yet, it happened, and those two men were woven into an intricate and convoluted picture on the canvas of life, We should not only be in awe with what they achieved, but also be astounded at the way they were guided and the song was protected through the ages….

      1. seeker

        Be-Kind-to-Mice-Movement it will be from now and I will ensure that children in my family will understand after reading your story. I’ll drink to that. Pressing the share button and danke.

  2. thehappyhugger

    I really enjoyed reading this series again, Amos. I keep thinking how wonderful it would be if it could be printed into a combination of a Christmas card/mini booklet. I don’t know if the greeting card people make that sort of thing, but I have the picture of it in my head and I think it would be something wonderful to add to the gifts we give at Christmas time.

  3. colonialist

    *wildly enthusiastic standing ovation*
    I was enthralled by this story in all its episodes. You have taken a most fascinating bit of history, and done a brilliant job of recounting it.

  4. seegogga

    Dankie vir die mooi storie en Stille nag met die ou Afrikaanse woorde, wat naby aan die Duits is, (en wat kinders nog laat verstaan het wat hulle sing) , en die wonderlike woorde: Soete Hemelse rus.


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