Gertruida loves weaving the apparently insignificant bits of the story of the famous song into a rich tapestry of coincidences – or miracles. She says the origin of the song is a testimony to the significance of events we usually discard as unimportant. Smiling at the paradox, she then elaborates on the life of another rather unlikely person who also didn’t have an easy life.
Franzl Gruber (born 25 November 1787) was more fortunate than poor Joseph Mohr: he at least had a father, even if they were terribly poor. Papa Gruber, however, scoffed at his son’s ambition to be a musician – according to his thinking, there would be no future for the lad other than following the family tradition of weaving.
But, Gertruida says, mothers have a way of cutting through paternal red tape to achieve impossible ends. Men might think they own the steering wheel, but the engine of any household is controlled by a much softer hand. Behind the stern back of Franz senior, Ma Gruber arranged for organ lessons for her son with Andreas Peter Lichner, the choirmaster in the church of Hochburg. The boy’s progress pleased his teacher tremendously and so mother and tutor agreed that it would be a travesty if Franzl ended his days in the weaver’s chair. But what to do and how to get past the head of the house?
Fate intervened. When Franzl was twelve, Peter Lichner fell ill and there was no one to play the organ that Sunday. Not a single soul in Hochburg was able to perform the High Mass…except the boy who received the secret lessons his father didn’t know about. When the service was about to start, young Franzl quietly slipped from his parents’ side, hurried to the console and sat down in front of the organ he loved so much. With feet barely touching the pedals, he played the High Mass to perfection. The townsfolk were astounded, and could hardly wait for the service to end before congratulating Papa Franz on his brilliant son.
Fathers are great at getting out of such situations. Of course he knew the child had a special gift. In fact, was it not he, the hero, who earned the money to pay for the boy’s tuition? No, they misunderstood him! Franz senior did a smart about turn and now supported Franzl – even to the extent of spending 5 Gulden on an old spinnet for his son to practice on. Later he sent the youth to Berghausen for two years to study under Georg Hartdobler.
Eventually (1816) Franzl secured the position of teacher in the village of Arnsdorf, where he was to stay for 21 years. Here he married the widow of his predecessor, acquiring not only a wife, but several offspring. She unfortunately died and he married a local lass – who died as well. A third wife (presumably of more sturdy stock) followed. With all these mouths to feed (by this time he managed to produce a few children of his own) he was forced to accept the post as organist in the neighbouring town of Oberndorf as well.
And it was here, in St Nicola’s Church in Oberndorf, that Franzl met up with Joseph Mohr, assistant to the pious and strict Father Nostler.
Priests, like us ordinary folk, tend to display their basic personalities. Some are genuinely kind-hearted souls, bent on serving their communities. Others bear the burden of their holy duties with solemn frowns and many sighs. While Joseph never lost the fun-loving side of his character, Father Nostler was a morose and vindictive character. He detested the young priest’s tendency to play lively music on his Zupfgeigen,as guitars were called those days. Literally translated, the word means ‘pluck violin’, for guitars were plucked and not stroked in those days. It is maybe not far-fetched to compare the young Joseph (later accompanied by the more musical Franz) to a more modern-day Elvis – their progressive ability with the guitar led to disapproving frowns from the upper echelons on the theological pyramid. Gertruida is quick to point out that this is where the comparison with the King of Rock and Roll stops – Joseph did certainly not invent the hip movements that became so popular more than a century later.
With the two main characters established in the birthplace of Silent Night, we now turn our attention to the night of 23 December 1818. The third, and maybe the most important, actor in the drama that was to unfold on the day before Christmas, had waited patiently for the doors of the church to be locked. The cold and hungry creature peered from its lair, made sure there was no one around, and scurried on its four tiny feet hither and thither, as mice do when they’re scouting for food.
History does not record the circumstances surrounding the life or death of this nameless mouse, yet it deserves mention every time we hear the stirring melody of Silent Night. Had it not done the unthinkable, we’d have one less song in our Christmas repertoire. .
When it found that Joseph had, indeed, cleaned the church very well in preparation for the evening mass the following night, the mouse cast around for a meal – any meal. With no crumbs on the table, the floor or between the seats, it scampered up the stairs to his last resort – the bellows and the leather pipes that fed air to the flutes of the organ. Here it gnawed away contently, not complaining about the quality of its meal, until it heard the great key turn in the lock. Like clever church mice do, it hurried to its home. That night, after Christmas Mass, it hoped to feast on the crumbs and the little pieces of wafer grumpy old Father Nostler always spilled at the altar.
So there we have it: Joseph Mohr (assistant priest, part-time musician), Franzl Gruber (teacher, organist, feeder of an extended family) and a hungry mouse (professional gnawer of no historical ancestry). The simple recipe for Silent Night.
When Franzl sat down in front of the organ to practice for that evening’s mass, it was the morning of the 24th December and the service he was preparing for a mere twelve hours away. So was the first public rendition of Silent Night, although he didn’t know it at the time. One can only imagine his shock and horror when the leaking pipes wheezed and the notes remained silent. There was no possibility of repairing the organ – the organ mender from Zillerthal would only be able to reach the snowed-in village by May. Yet, the assistant priest and the organist had to come up with something; Christmas Mass without music was unthinkable.
Gertruida always pauses at this point to remind her listeners that it is worthwhile to consider the series of apparently insignificant ‘coincidences’ (or miracles) that brought them to this point in the story. Joseph, the illegitimate child with a hangman as sponsor for his baptism. Franzl, whose mother defied his father to allow her child to master the organ; now married for the third time and having to accept another job to support his family. Peter Lichner, whose illness caused Papa Gruber to do a smart about-face. And of course, the mouse: it could have chosen 364 other days to ruin the organ.
Christmas, too, is a coincidental date for many people. Most of us accept that it isn’t really the birthday of Christ. Some will remind you that 25 December is associated with the winter solstice to celebrate the ‘unconquered sun’ as it retreats from its migration to herald the advent of spring. Others maintain it has its origin in Scandinavia with it’s celebration of Yule. We all agree it is a time during which billions are spent on cards and gifts, making it the most expensive feast of all. Somehow, we tend to think about Christmas as a feast of the past (remembering Bethlehem) and not a promise of the future.
The point, Gertruida says, about Gruber, Mohr and the mouse is this: circumstances developed over many years to place them together at exactly the right time, facing an insurmountable problem and leaving them with an impossible task. Life does that to us all from time to time. It is all too easy to simply give up and allow the tides of misfortune to drown the dreams we cherished – but that is the wrong approach. Overcoming the odds is what life is all about. It is also the message of Christmas.
Gertruida tells her audience that they, too, can look back on 2014 to pick out moments of misfortune, tragedy and hardship. In South Africa we have had many of these – ranging from political mayhem to personal loss. But…the message of Silent Night forces us in a different direction. It reminds us that the rungs on the ladder of Life are placed exactly right for each of us to overcome every adversity.
That, she says, is what Christmas is all about.
So – how did Gruber and Mohr achieve greatness? How did they manage to make music that night? And what does this all have to do with Silent Night?
Like all good storytellers, Gertruida never rushes the ending. Stories, like Life, represent a journey of discovery. A good story, she’ll tell you, should be savoured and enjoyed. It is in the intertwining of apparently insignificant events that the magic of a story lives. And here she’ll laugh softly, saying that no significant building can rest of an insignificant foundation. That, she says, makes the word ‘insignificant’ obsolete. And, she adds, what is true for buildings, is also true for Life. Or Christmas, come to think of it.
(To be continued…)