Hannes Richter

“Silent Night! Stille Nacht!”

Hannes Richter

On the 190th Anniversary of the first performance of a worldwide known Austrian Christmas carol
This year we commemorate the 190th Anniversary of the Christmas carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” The song was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818, in a small parish in Salzburg. Today it is part of the traditional Christmas repertoire around the globe. The original lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” were written in German by the Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr, and the melody was composed by the Austrian headmaster, Franz Xaver Gruber.
In 1816, when Joseph Mohr was a young Catholic priest serving as an assistant pastor at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr in the province of Salzburg, he wrote a six-stanza poem with each verse beginning with “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht.” Later, when he was assigned to the St. Nicholas parish in Oberndorf, he met Franz Xaver Gruber, who was the schoolmaster, organist, and choirmaster in Arnsdorf, a small village near Oberndorf. Franz Xaver Gruber was also serving as organist and choir director in St. Nicholas parish. Both men became close friends and on Christmas Eve, 1818, Joseph Mohr visited Franz Xaver Gruber and his family and showed him the six verses of “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” He asked him to compose a melody and a guitar accompaniment for the poem so that it could be performed at the Christmas Mass. Later “Silent Night” was performed for the first time during the Midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf with Joseph Mohr accompanying the carol with his guitar and the choir singing the last two lines of each of the six verses.
Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr could never have imagined the impact their composition would have for generations to come on Christmas celebrations around the globe. The Rainer Singers, a family of traveling folk singers from the Zillertal in Tyrol added “Silent Night” to their regular repertoire and the following Christmas in 1819 performed “Silent Night” for the first time outside of Oberndorf in the village church of Fügen. Several performances followed throughout Europe, as well as their American Tour in 1839. The Rainer Family Singers performed “Silent Night” as part of their Christmas program in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in the cemetery of the Trinity Church in New York City. This is believed to be the first time the carol was performed in the United States.
Twenty years later John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest at New York City’s Trinity Church, who collected and translated European hymns and carols into English, translated three of Joseph Mohr’s six verses of “Stille Nacht.” His three-stanza version of the 1st, 6th, and 2nd verses of the original text is now sung by millions of people in English-speaking nations. In 2006, the organizers of the annual Christmas Eve program “Stille Nacht” in Oberndorf, Austria asked American, William C. Egan, to translate the other three verses of Joseph Mohr’s poem. When combined with John Freeman Young’s verses, all six are sung today in English.
Over the years “Silent Night” has been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects and today it serves as the centerpiece of many Christmas celebrations. Although the original manuscript of “Stille Nacht” had been missing, a later copy in Mohr's handwriting was discovered in 1995 and dated by researchers at around 1820.