Silent Night Had Simple Beginnings and a Lasting Impact on the World

Joseph Mohr’s beginnings were as spare and simple as his Christmas carol Silent Night, one of the first known Christmas carols. On December 11, 1792, a poor unmarried knitter named Anna Schoiber gave birth to a son and she named him Joseph. Joseph’s father, Franz Joseph Mohr chose his army position as one of the archbishop’s musketeers instead of his family, leaving Anna and his son to survive as best they could. Besides his mother, the adults in Joseph Mohr’s formative years included his grandmother, his god father Franz Joseph Wohlmuth, and cathedral choirmaster Johann Nepomuk Hiernle. Hierule sent Joseph to the respected Kremsmunster School and he served as a musician for the Cathedral while he was a student.

Because of his illegitimacy, Joseph had to obtain special permission from the Pope to enter the priesthood. He overcame this obstacle and in 1815, he was ordained a priest. By1816, Father Mohr was assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria. His grandfather lived nearby and possibly Joseph wrote the original six stanzas of Silent Night while walking through the peaceful, starlit countryside on the way to visit his grandfather. He was transferred to Oberndorf in 1817 to be the assistant priest at St. Nicolas Cathedral. That same year he had become acquainted with church verger Franz Gruber while in Salzburg hospital recuperating from an illness. Franz Gruber became his church organist at Oberndorf.

On December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr found himself making another countryside journey to the home of Franz Gruber, a musician and schoolteacher who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. He showed his friend his poem and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so it could be sung at Midnight Mass.
Some versions of his story say that Father Mohr needed a special carol because mice had eaten the organ bellows and the organ wouldn’t work. Other versions of the story say that the assistant pastor loved guitar music and wanted a new carol for Christmas.

Whatever the motivation for the new carol, on December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber with the choir behind them, stood in front of the main altar in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf and sang “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” for the first time. The Stille Nacht manuscript dated around 1820 is for guitar accompaniment and is probably closest to the version that Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber sang at Midnight Mass in 1818.

Franz Gruber

The parishioners liked the carol and slowly it spread to other churches in other regions. Karl Mauracher, master organ builder and repairman, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ several times and while doing his work at St. Nicholas he got a copy of Stille Nacht and took it home with him. The simple carol began its globe traveling journey labeled as a “Tyrolean Folk Song.”

Two families of traveling folk singers from the Ziller Valley incorporated Stille Nacht into their repertoire. According to the Leipziger Tageblatt, the Strassers sang Stille Nacht in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. During this time, several musical notes were changed and the carol evolved into the modern melody.

An Austrian historical plaque says that the Ranier Family sang Stille Nacht in front of an audience including Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. In 1839, the Rainers performed Stille Nacht for the first time in America at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside of Trinity Church in New York City.

By the 1840s, Joseph Bletzacher, the Court Opera singer from Hannover reported that Silent Night was already well known in Lower Saxony. He said that “the Royal Cathedral Choir in Berlin popularized Silent Night and it became the favorite Christmas carol of King Frederick William IV of Prussia. He used to have the Cathedral Choir sing Silent Night for him during the Christmas season of each year.”

By the time Silent Night had become famous in Europe, Father Joseph Mohr had died, but he had not received credit for composing the words of the carol. In 1848, Father Mohr died of pulmonary disease in Wagrain where he had served as pastor of St. Johann’s and donated all of his earnings for eldercare and education. The townspeople built a memorial Joseph Mohr School located a dozen yards from his grave. In a report to the bishop, the overseer of St. Johann’s, described Father Mohr as “a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father.”

Silent Night continued to grow in stature and fame. A myth that Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven had written the music began and persisted into the twentieth century. Franz Gruber wrote to the music authorities in Berlin informing them that he had composed the music to Stille Nacht, and that Father Joseph Mohr had written the words to the carol.

In 1995, a manuscript was discovered that researchers dated to around 1820. Written in Mohr’s handwriting, it revealed that he had composed the words to Silent Night in 1816 when he was pastor at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. It shows that Gruber composed the music in 1818. This is the earliest existing manuscript and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting. Franz Gruber continued to write music and serve as choirmaster until he died in 1863 at the age of 76.

German immigrants brought Silent Night with them to America and sang Silent Night both in German and English, as part of their tradition. It began to be included in many church hymn books. Many publications and hymnbook printings later, on Christmas Eve of 1918, Franz Gruber’s grandson played Silent Night on guitar.

For centuries musicians and historians believed that Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber had worked together to write just one song, but in 2006 archivists working in the Salzburg Diocesan Archives found a song called Te Deum. Joseph Mohr wrote the words and Franz Gruber composed the melody. The Waggerl Museum in Wagrain features Te Deum in an audio exhibit.

But Silent Night is still their most popular creation. Today Silent Night, the song with humble beginnings, is one of the most beloved of all Christmas carols and is sung around the world in multiple languages. Even John Denver and the Muppets perform a special rendition of Silent Night. Despite the transitions of time and the translations of languages, Father Mohr’s message of love and peace is a quiet grace note in the clamor of Christmas time in the modern world.

Silent Night

John Denver and the Muppets Sing Silent Night