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Tuesday, 22 December 2009
Christmas Carols IX

Silent Night

I have endeavoured to point out in this short series of posts that the tradition of Christmas Carols is an ever-changing one in its details and that new Carols come into being all the time. Perhaps the most famous new Carol of our modern age is ‘Silent Night’:
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!                  
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute Hoch Heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in Himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in Himmlischer Ruh!
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
G-ttes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb' aus deinem Göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund'.
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Jesus in deiner Geburt!
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höhn,
Uns der Gnaden Fülle läßt sehn,
Jesum in Menschengestalt!
Jesum in Menschengestalt!
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Wo sich heut alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoß,
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloß
Jesus die Völker der Welt!
Jesus die Völker der Welt!
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Lange schon uns bedacht,
Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit
In der Väter urgrauer Zeit
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß!
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß!
Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Alleluja,
Tönt es laut bei Ferne und Nah:
"Jesus der Retter ist da!"
"Jesus der Retter ist da!"
The following is Bettina Klein’s lovely, inspired translation:
Silent Night! Holy Night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon G-dly tender pair.
Holy infant with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of G-d, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy Holy face, 
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Brought the world gracious light,
Down from Heaven's golden height
Comes to us the glorious sight:
Jesus, as one of mankind,
Jesus, as one of mankind.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
By his love, by his might
G-d our Father us has graced,
As a brother gently embraced,
Jesus, all nations on earth,
Jesus, all nations on earth.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Long ago, minding our plight
G-d the world from misery freed,
In the dark age of our fathers decreed:
All the world  redeemed,
All the world  redeemed.
Silent Night! Holy Night!
Shepherds first saw the sight
Of angels singing alleluia
Calling clearly near and far:
Christ, the saviour is born,
Christ the Saviour is born.
The original Austrian German words of this, probably the most popular, modern Carol of Christmastide were written by Father Joseph Mohr in AD1816 when as a young priest he was sent by his Diocese to serve the Altar at the Pilgrimage Church in Mariapfarr in Austria. The following year (AD1817) he was transferred to the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf.

It is known that shortly before Christmas in AD1818 Fr. Mohr visited the home of musician and schoolteacher Franz Xavier Gruber who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf. Herr Gruber was also the Organist and Choirmaster at the Nicholas Kirche in Oberndorf. Fr. Joseph showed his poem to Herr Gruber and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be sung at the Midnight Service on Christmas Eve. His reason for wanting his poem set to music is unknown but the young priest is known to have really liked guitar music, so perhaps he merely wanted a simple tune which he could share with his parishioners at Christmas in a personal way.

At Midnight Mass that evening the two men, backed by the choir it seems by all accounts, stood in front of the High Altar in the St. Nicholas Kirche in Oberndorf and sang "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" for the first time with Father Mohr playing his guitar.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman from the Ziller Valley in Austria, visited Oberndorf to work on the organ in the Nicholas Kirche several times in the years after this Carol was first sung. While doing his work in St. Nicholas, he obtained a copy of the composition and took it home with him and that’s how this lovely Carol got launched into the world.

Two travelling families of folk singers from the Ziller Valley incorporated the song into their repertoire after having seen Herr Mauracher’s copy. According to the Leipziger Tageblatt, the Strassers, one of the two families, sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832. It was during this period that a few of the notes were changed, and the Carol evolved into the easy melody we know and love today. On another occasion, according to an historical plaque, the Rainer family, the other singing family from the Ziller, sang this Christmas Carol before an audience which included Emperor Franz I and Tsar Alexander I. In AD1839, the Rainer family performed "Stille Nacht" for the first time in America, at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City.

Joseph Bletzacher, a Court Opera singer from Hanover, reported that by the 1840s, this Carol was already well known in Lower Saxony. "In Berlin," he says, "the Royal Cathedral Choir has popularised it.” It became, according to many accounts, the favourite Christmas Carol of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who used to have his Cathedral Choir sing it for him during Christmas every year.

By the time the song became famous all across Europe Fr. Joseph Mohr had died and the composer of the melody had been forgotten. Although Franz Gruber wrote to many of the music authorities in Berlin stating that he was the composer many people assumed that the tune was the work of Haydn, or Mozart or Beethoven. The mystery of the composer was finally put to rest a few years ago when a long-lost arrangement of "Stille Nacht" penned in the hand of Fr. Mohr, was authenticated. In the upper right hand corner of the arrangement, Father Mohr has plainly written: "Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber."

During his lifetime, Franz Xavier Gruber produced a number of orchestral arrangements of his composition. The original guitar arrangement is missing, but five other Gruber manuscripts of this modern Carol exist. The manuscript by Fr. Joseph Mohr (circa 1820) is for a guitar accompaniment and is probably the closest to the arrangement of the melody sung at that Midnight Mass in 1818 in the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf.

Later on Herr Gruber and his family moved to Hallein, now the home of the Franz Xavier Gruber Museum. It contains several rooms furnished from his former home along with some outstanding exhibits dealing with the history of "Silent Night" and amongst them is Father Joseph Mohr's guitar. Franz Gruber's grave is outside the house and is decorated with a tree every Christmas.

Father Joseph Mohr's final resting place is the tiny Alpine ski resort of Wagrain. He was born into poverty at 31 Steingasse in Salzburg in 1792 and he died penniless in Wagrain in 1848 (he’d been sent as Pastor to the Church and the faithful there). He had donated all of his earnings for the care of the elderly and for the education of the children in the area. His memorial from the townspeople of Wagrain is, appropriately, the Joseph Mohr School which is located a few tens of metres from his grave. The overseer of the St. Johann Church in Wagrain, in a report to the Bishop, described Fr. Mohr as "...a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father."

The simple and lovely words of this Carol were born from the imagination of a modest rural priest; the easily memorised tune was composed by a musician who was unknown outside his local area; and this great expression of joy and faith was first sung in a Church dedicated to St Nicholas whom I discussed in Part VIII, yesterday. If that’s not a significant coincidence, maybe even a minor miracle, then I don’t know what is.
And here, in heavily accented Dutch.
And here, in something which probably approximates to Fr. Mohr’s original intention.
And here, for a small taste of English Cathedral Choristers – the great Christian musical heritage of our vanishing England.
Posted on 12/22/2009 9:43 AM by John M. Joyce
22 Dec 2009
Esmerelda Weatherwax

I have just been practising Silent Night (and others) on the accordion for Christmas Eve - for Silent Night I am playing the second part.
Over 25 years ago I was on holiday in the Ziller Valley and?went to?the village of Fugen where, if I recall what I was told correctly, I?visited? the church where Silent Night was sung that Christmas for the Emperor and his visiting relative the Czar, or if not in the church, at the nearby Royal Lodge.
The church was?more rugged?and imposing than some of the charming but?frothy roccoco confections in the Tyrol.