Tag Archives: organ

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…

The Organ-failure Strike

“Okay. So now Rolbos is  filled with Ninjas and Saints and even Cupid.” Vetfaan’s bad mood has disappeared and he smiles as he remarks on the recent events. “If that is progress, we must accept it. But I miss the old days. We used to have fun, built spa’s, laughed[i] at Oom Oorlog and had picnics at Bokkop. The old Rolbos is disappearing, you guys. Unless we do something about it, we’ll become like one of the bigger towns – like Pofadder or Prieska. My vote is that we do something to prevent that. We must bring the fun back to Rolbos – and we don’t have to fall behind the rest of the country either, while we’re doing that. We’re not backward – we can move with the times, my friend.”

Kleinpiet has that faraway look in his eyes as he sips his beer. Precilla has been so sweet lately – as if the recent spate of romances in town was contagious somehow. He likes the way she looks at him in that Princess Diana way.

“Y-e-e-s?”

“Look we’ve had Olympics and Paralympics. We’ve had bazaars and picnics. We have Boggel’s Place to meet and chat. We must find something new.”

“Okay.” Kleinpiet isn’t concentrating at all.

“I think we must have a strike.”

“A what?” Kleinpiet sits up straight.

Vetfaan explains. The rest of the country goes on strike every now and then. Then the people dance and sing, start a few fires, and get a raise. “But we’re not like that. We’re not going on strike for money. We’ll do it for free. If you get paid to strike, you take the fun out of it. It becomes something people do to gain something. Now, we? We don’t want money. We have got houses. Most of us don’t need electricity – we’ve made do with candles and paraffin lamps since forever. We’ve got Boggel and when we’re hungry, I slaughter one of my sheep….”

He’s about to go on, but Kleinpiet frowns him into silence.

“Hey, wait a minute! What about the sheep you gave for the church bazaar last year? You stole that one from me!”

“Now, don’t let’s derail the argument on a technicality. That sheep was standing in no-man’s land. You know we agreed on that.”

Long ago, to prevent this type of argument, the men agreed to clear a stretch of land on both sides of the fence separating the two farms. That was supposed to keep the sheep from approaching the fence, and being enticed to break through to the other side. By mutual consent, it was agreed that a sheep found wandering in the cleared area, can be claimed by anybody. While the logic in the argument is sadly lacking, it is an example of the wisdom originating in Boggel’s Place late at night.

Kleinpiet lets the argument go. After all, he sneaked over to Vetfaan’s during the next full moon, and helped himself to some “compensation”. This, in turn, resulted in lengthy peace negotiations and he returned most of Vetfaan’s sheep. He doesn’t want to revisit that argument – last time he and Vetfaan had to replace the broken furniture afterwards.

“So you slaughter sheep when we’re hungry. What’s the point of your argument, Vetfaan?”

“My point is this: if you strike for money, you’re being unprofessional. We’re not like that. I mean, most days we don’t do any work, so what’s the point in striking? But we sure can do with a nice dance and some singing. And, may I remind you – we don’t need to throw stones in Voortrekker Weg – that pothole is large enough to stop any traffic. We’ve got this bar, an unlimited amount of Cactus, some very crazy people and a judge. He can mediate the end of the strike when we’re tired. And somebody can hand over a memorandum to Gertruida.” Vetfaan’s eyes sparkle as the ideas begin to flow. “Oudoom can even open the strike with a reading and a prayer. It’s perfect!” To celebrate, he orders a beer.

“So what’s the memorandum about, then?”

“We must find a reason to complain. Somebody must have a grievance. A complaint-free strike is an impossibility. Once we’ve identified a problem, it’s written down on a piece of paper and then it’s a legal strike. Even the judge will agree with that.”

***

And so, for the first time in the world’s history, a sing-strike got organised. Vetfaan explained it to the townsfolk in Boggel’s Place that night.

“Look, we all know how Oudoom complains about our singing in church. I think it’s unfair. It’s an infringement of our rights. The reason we sing so slowly, is because Mevrou plays the organ as if it’s a funeral every Sunday. Next time we’re in church, we refuse to sing. In respect for all concerned – it is a church service after all – we cannot remain silent either. So when she plays this Sunday, we la-la-la along. We’ll sing the words in our hearts, but not like Mevrou expects us to. Then Oudoom will complain. He’ll draw up a memorandum, and then we’ll have a dispute.

“The beauty of the plan is this: we’ll be singing and dancing when Gertruida receives the memorandum, Boggel will see to the drinks, and we can have a strike-party, just like they’re doing everywhere else these days “

***

Mevrou looks up in alarm when she starts with The Lo-o-o-o-rd is my-y Sh-e-e-eph-e-e-erd, and the congregation L-a-a-a la la la-a-a-a’s along. Oudoom and Servaas try valiantly to get them to sing the words, but are met by the smiling faces that continue to sing in monosyllables.

“What is this?” Oudoom fights to keep his voice steady.

“It’s a sing-strike, Dominee. We demand proper accompaniment in church. We’re here to praise the Lord, not to bury our joy. We want you to draw up a memorandum, be at Boggel’s tomorrow night and hand it to Gertruida. Then Judge Gericke can mediate the dispute, we can come to a negotiated settlement and we’ll call off the strike. It’s the modern way, Dominee. Everybody does it.” Vetfaan has prepared well, and feels he delivered his ultimatum with considerable respect.

“This is preposterous. Unheard of. Not possible!” Oudoom struggles to keep his temper at bay. Servaas sits down to let his head sink into his hands. Every time he thinks the townsfolk have done the stupidest thing, they manage to surprise him with something even worse. Imagine: revolt against singing in church?

Oudoom breathes deeply. While in his toga, it would be unseemly to lose his temper. Mevrou has turned a whiter shade of grey.

***

At seven, Monday evening, Oudoom walks into Boggel’s Place with as much dignity he can muster. At his side, Mevrou cuts a striking figure in her best funeral dress and 50’s hat. Servaas brings up the rear, dressed in his black suit.

Vetfaan, smiling proudly at the strike he’s organised, waits at the counter. Kleinpiet serves the Cactus while Judge watches. He, of course, thinks this is a farcical travesty of justice; but being new in town and not wanting to hurt feelings, he agreed to go along with the proceedings. Gertruida – who hasn’t been herself lately – holds his hand while her smile threatens to reach her ears.

The atmosphere is tense as the two delegations approach each other.

“I. Have. Written. Here. That. I. Think. You’re. Crazy.” Oudoom’s words are measured and precise while he waves the document around. He is obviously very angry.

“Yes, and I will see to it that you get expelled from church.” Servaas’ words tumble into the ensuing silence. “This is blasphemous. You will be placed under censure. The Ring will hear about this.”

Gertruida holds out her hand to receive the paper. “Thank you,” she says sweetly.

“I declare this dispute resolved, and both parties must now shake hands. Bless you all.” Judge Gericke has never seen anything like this and can’t help smiling.

“And I want to thank Oudoom for being such a sport. We have had our first real strike in Rolbos. Two things remain to be done. Kleinpiet?”

Kleinpiet walks over to Oudoom to hand over a document. “We’ve been collecting sheep for the next bazaar, Oudoom. Between the guys,” he points at Frans, Vetfaan, Ben Bitterbrak, we’ve got twelve so far. Sammy promised groceries. The Verdana’s are going to have a pasta stall. And the ladies have put down their names for cakes and handcraft stuff. In all, I think we should make enough money to buy a new organ for the church. A nice electronic one that can do flutes and harps and piano, as well. The old one takes ages to build enough pressure to play the notes – that’s why poor Mevrou has to play like she does. With a new organ, we’ll really be able to praise the Lord in a joyous way.”

While Oudoom now finds himself fighting to keep the smile from his face, Mevrou asks timidly: “And the second thing, Vetfaan?”

“Well, it involves two things, actually. First of all we’d like to apologise. We didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And we’d like to show our respect by asking you to join the party.”

At the word ‘party’, Boggel breaks out a case of Cactus Jack and Precilla starts serving. Oudoom has no choice but to join in the toast on the new organ. It’s going to be a long night…

***

“That was a glorious strike, Kleinpiet,” Precilla says later, while they’re helping Boggel to wash the glasses. “And all those sheep! That was so generous of you!”

Kleinpiet smiles coyly. Yes, those sheep. Maybe he’ll tell her about the no-man’s land one day. But not now – if Vetfaan hears about it, they’ll have to buy new furniture again.

“Oudoom always says you must give until it hurts, Precilla. But sometimes it’s better to stop before it does.”

***

General consensus is that the world’s first sing-strike may be viewed as a success. Oudoom and Mevrou received the organ with undiluted joy. The singing during services is so filled with delighted ecstasy that the church council from Grootdrink established a commission of enquiry to investigate the possibility of acquiring a new organ themselves. Just yesterday the delegation came to see Vetfaan about the possibility of a strike. It seems that Julius Malema is unavailable for the time being. Servaas still considers the events to be sacrilegious, but Mevrou told him to calm down, the townsfolk meant well – and the Lord knew from the start they weren’t  trying to disrupt the services – they only wanted to enhance them.

There is a problem, though: Vetfaan did his monthly count of sheep today. He stormed into Boggel’s, demanding to know where Kleinpiet is.

“He called out a fight-strike, Vetfaan. When you’re ready, he’ll receive the memorandum. But right now he’s on his way to Lekkersing,[ii] on the West Coast. He suddenly remembered he had business there…”


[ii] A real place, in the Richtersveld. Like Grootdrink, it got it’s name a few generations ago. Apparently the sound of the water bubbling from a fountain in the arid desert was the reason for the village, as well as its name.