One of the most enjoyable experiences of the Holiday season is listening to or performing the enormous body of celebratory music lovingly written for the Holidays over the centuries. And, each Holiday season, scores of worshipful singers re-create Silent Night, a song born in humble, desperate, eleventh hour circumstances, two centuries ago this year.
And therein lies a tale.
On Christmas Eve, 1818, celebrations of the Christmas holiday were very much on the minds of the people of Oberndorf, Austria as they prepared to gather together for midnight Mass to celebrate the birth of Christ with prayer and song. Foremost on the mind of Curate Joseph Mohr of the Church of St. Nicholas, however, were more worrying concerns; he had discovered that the church organ was badly damaged and, no matter how hard the pedals were pumped, only a scratchy wheeze could be cajoled from it. And repair of the aging instrument in time for the Christmas celebrations was, alas, out of the question.
The young cleric despairingly retired to the quiet solitude of his study. Although blessed with musical talent and an aptitude for the guitar, he felt that the guitar would perhaps not be the best choice of instrument upon which to play the traditional carols employed at that time in Christmas celebrations. Mohr decided that the solution was to prepare a completely new song for his congregation. And so, he lifted his quill pen, and, soon thereafter, six simple stanzas telling the story of the Nativity flowed from it.
As quickly produced as they were, the stanzas still needed to be set to music, and midnight Mass was fast approaching. Realizing that he needed help, Mohr paid a timely visit to the living quarters of his friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, the Church of St. Nicholas’s organist and choirmaster, and asked for his help with realizing the song for two voices, chorus and guitar. Gruber set to work immediately, and, employing three of the most basic harmonies in music theory, he weaved the famous melody with which we are all familiar today, to complement Mohr’s words.
Both men arrived back at the church before midnight, barely having time for one precious rehearsal, and agreeing that Mohr would sing the tenor part and play his guitar, Gruber would sing the bass part, and the church choir would join in four-part harmony at each refrain.
And, at midnight, the congregation of the Church of St. Nicholas, as they had for many years, filed into the pews. Guitar in hand, and with Gruber and the church choir at his side, Mohr told the congregation that although the majestic, full-throated sounds of the church’s organ would not be heard that night, a special different kind of music would be heard.
And thus, it was ensured that music still played a part in the Church of St. Nicholas’s Christmas Eve midnight Mass.
Stop by the Library and see our Holiday Collection, which offers Holiday music for all ages and musical abilities, from the beginning caroler to the seasoned Holiday music maker!