The Miracle of Silent Night (#5)

The memorial chapel in Oberndorf

The Mohr memorial chapel in Oberndorf

Gertruida tells them their journey with the history of Silent Night is nearing its end. The work of Gruber and Mohr had been published under Authors Unknown by Anton Friese and although the melody was not the exact 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.

fade03Today the ski-resort of Wagrain in the Arlberg is the vibrant playground of the rich and the fortunate. Way back in  the1800’s it was a poor village with a simple chapel. When Joseph Mohr was appointed as vicar of the parish, it was a lateral promotion into obscurity. For twenty years he laboured as much-loved priest and friend and when the song was finally published in 1848 in Berlin, he had already 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 not one 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.

images (3)We have no picture of Mohr – no sketch, no painting, nothing.  He had lived humbly for 55 years, donating most of his small salary to the aged and promoting education amongst the children of his congregation. Having his features immortalised on canvas just didn’t fit in with his character. 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 an artist 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 work could start on the grizzly task at hand. The memorial plaque he created was destined for the small memorial chapel in honour of Silent Night.

gruberLife was less harsh on Franz Xaver 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 of Authors Unknown. What Mohr’s reasons were for not claiming authorship, one can only guess. Gruber later stated that the transcript by Anton Friese didn’t contain the exact music he had written. Friese’s version, remember, was jotted down in shorthand and later transcribed, which explains the discrepancy. However, Gruber and Mohr didn’t think about claiming ownership – it just 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.

salzburg___stift_sankt_peter_by_pingallery-d48eqddSo, 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 Gertruida tells her audience, she simply loves the legend involving choir director Herr P. Ambrosius Prennsteiner of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg. This, she reminds them, represents perhaps the biggest miracle of Silent Night…

In 1854 the Abbot wrote Prennsteiner a letter, conveying the request by the Kapellmeister of he 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 Kapellmeister there for 43 years before his death in 1806; and it was presumed that the score would be in the extensive library amongst the other 350 compositions he had written during his tenure there.

The Kapellmeister 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. Young Felix, amazingly, just had to be 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 at all, but was written by his father, Franzl. Although the Kapellmeister must have been sceptical, 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 Weihnachtslied. 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 one Joseph Mohr, who, along with Franz Gruber of Hallein, wrote Silent Night. It was the first ‘official’ acknowledgement of their combined efforts in 1818. By this time, however, both of them were dead.


With the story told, Gertruida sighs happily. This is the graphic part of the story, where her listeners must close their eyes and take an imaginary trip to a village far, far away.

“Such then, is the story of the most famous of Christmas songs. But come now, on the eve of Christmas, and let us join the people 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 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. Maybe, as a sign of blessing, a sprinkling of snow will float down on the crowd – divine applause for  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.

“It is in the quiet peace and acceptance of Life following 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.”

Gertruida says a good ending can never be rushed, and it is so with this story. She refuses to say ‘The End’ when the story is told. It has no end, she says. We shall sing the song with our loved ones and our children. In years to come, they will do so with theirs. And so the echoes of Silent Night will pass from generation to generation, reminding us that we are never alone. In the silence of the night – any night – Joseph Mohr ‘s words will comfort us in the year ahead. Inevitably, because that’s what Life is like, we’ll face hardships, disappointments and a few goodbyes. We’ll maybe also reach a few goals and have a couple of laughs. There’ll be tears of joy…and sadness. Every single one of us will feel the pain of an abandoned child at times – just like the humble Rev Mohr did. And then, in those quiet moments, Joseph Mohr is there to remind us: der Retter ist da…the Saviour is there, as well…

Gertruida has a bit of advice to every parent telling this story to a sleepy-eyed child on the eve of Christmas. She says the final sentence should be: “It started with a mouse….and it has no end…”


4 thoughts on “The Miracle of Silent Night (#5)

  1. Jocelyn Bright

    Amos Thank you Thank you Thank you what a simply beautiful story and one I never knew Wishing you a Blessed Christmas and may the New Year fill you with many many more wonderful tales to entertain us


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