WASHINGTON — Exactly 200 years ago this Christmas Eve — Dec. 24, 1818 — in a little church in what is now Austria, the world heard for the first time a poem set to music that eventually would be hailed as one of the most popular and beloved Christmas carols of all time.
“Silent Night” was sung for the first time that Christmas Eve at a midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire. A young Catholic priest, Father Joseph Mohr, wrote the lyrics, and Francis Xavier Gruber, an organist and school master, composed the music.
A popular legend is that the broken organ at Father Mohr’s parish church, St. Nicholas, inspired “Silent Night.” According to the story, the priest wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” — “Stille Nacht” in the original German — and asked Gruber to compose the tune for guitar so that there would be music at the midnight Mass. This was all supposed to have transpired during the day of Christmas Eve of 1818, just hours before the carol was to be performed for the first time.
The truth is less dramatic.
Father Mohr wrote the poem “Stille Nacht” in 1816 in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr, near Salzburg. Two years later, while serving at St. Nicholas Parish in Oberndorf, the priest asked Gruber to compose a melody for the words. It’s unknown why Father Mohr wanted to set his poem to music, but Gruber composed the music and “Silent Night” did indeed premiere at the Christmas Eve Mass.
The carol eventually spread beyond the small village to other parts of the Austrian Empire and eventually to the rest of the world. The attraction to the carol comes from “it’s blend of the particular and the universal,” said Sara Pecknold, professor of practice in the history of sacred music at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
She added Father Mohr wrote “Stille Nacht” “in the wake of tumultuous activity. The Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in everyone’s mind, so to write a poem about stillness and peace certainly makes sense. And it speaks about the universal peace that Christ brings to all people.”
The carol’s English version begins with the words: “Silent night, holy night All is calm, all is bright ‘Round yon Virgin Mother and Child Holy Infant so tender and mild Sleep in heavenly peace Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Gruber’s arrangement “is interesting because it is not very sophisticated, but composed in a very folksy style,” Pecknold said. “It is basically a simple tune with a folksy, pastoral setting and an undulating melodic swing. It is not too difficult to sing.”
The carol’s fame — and popularity — in the United States is due in a large part to the Rainer Family Singers, popular early 19th-century traveling singers from Austria who performed the song. It is believed the group brought the song to this country during their 1839 tour here.
“Stille Nacht” was translated into the English “Silent Night” by an Episcopal priest, the Rev. John Freeman Young.
“The English translation could be a little better,” Pecknold conceded. The original “Stille Nacht” has six verses. The English translation only has three — the first, second and sixth verses of the original.
A Time magazine survey found the song to be the most recorded Christmas carol, with “Joy to the World” a distant second. In 2011, the UNESCO declared “Silent Night” an honored part of “our intangible cultural heritage.”