“Silent night, holy nightSilent 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”
Origins of the Quote
Silent Night” is about a calm and bright silent night, and the wonder of a tender and mild newborn child, words written in 1816 by a young priest in Austria, Joseph Mohr, not long after the Napoleonic wars had taken their toll.
“The backstory is that the priest went for a walk before he wrote it, and he looked out over a very quiet, winter-laden town, “He was inspired…the town was at peace.”
An organ builder and repairman working at the church took a copy of the six-verse song to his home village. There, it was picked up and spread by two families of traveling folk singers, who performed around northern Europe. In 1834, the Strasser family performed it for the King of Prussia. In 1839, the Rainer family of singers debuted the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City.
The composition evolved and was translated into over 300 languages with many different arrangements for various voices and ensembles. It was sung in churches, in town squares, even on the battlefield during World War I, when, during a temporary truce on Christmas Eve, soldiers sang carols from home. “Silent Night,” by 1914, known around the world, was sung simultaneously in French, German and English.
The Person Behind the Words
Joseph Mohr was born on 11 December 1792 in Salzburg, Austria. Unfortunately, his mother Anna Schoiberin, was unmarried when she gave birth. She was an embroiderer and Franz Mohr was a mercenary soldier. He abandoned Joseph’s mother before the birth. It is known that the ancestors on his father’s side came from the town of Mariapfarr in the mountainous Lungau region south of Salzburg. His mother’s family was from the salt-mining city of Hallein.
At his baptism shortly after birth, the godfather was recorded as Joseph Wohlmuth, the last official executioner of Salzburg. He was represented by one Franziska Zachin. As the parents were unmarried, Joseph received the name of his godfather, according to custom.
Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, the vicar and leader of music at Salzburg Cathedral, enabled Mohr to have an education and encouraged the love of music. Mohr would serve simultaneously as a singer and violinist in the choirs of the University Church. And later at the Benedictine monastery church of St. Peter as a boy.
Mohr studied at the Benedictine monastery of Kremsmünster in the province of Upper Austria from 1808 to 1810. He returned to Salzburg to attend the Lyceum school, and in 1811, he entered the seminary. Since he was of illegitimate birth, a special dispensation was needed for him to attend seminary. On 21 August 1815, Mohr graduated and was ordained as a priest.
Some Final Thoughts
Over the years, the carol’s mystique grew with its popularity. After the original manuscript was lost, for decades, some speculated that the music had been written by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, in 1994, an original manuscript was found in Mohr’s handwriting, with Gruber named as a composer.
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