The following story is based on true events that happened on Christmas Eve in 1818.
An icy wind gust slammed into Father Joseph Mohr, but he leaned forward and pressed on through the night, snow crunching under his boots. The wind drove frail waves of snow skittering through the streets, deserted at this hour except for one lone plodding figure, Father Mohr. In his overcoat pocket his hand pressed the folded sheet of paper against his side, as if protecting it.
He stopped beside the schoolhouse and looked up the stairway to the apartment of the school teacher, who was also the church organist. Feeble light flickered behind the windows. The wind shredded the chimney smoke to ribbons that dissipated into the black sky. Low clouds hung like a shroud over the Austrian village of Oberndorf.
His body numb from the cold, his feet like blocks of ice, Father Mohr climbed the stairs and rapped on the door. Shuffling sounds from inside. The door opened. The man who stood in the doorway seemed startled to see the young priest.
“Franz, I need your help,” Father Mohr said.
“Father, come in. Warm yourself by the stove.”
Father Mohr stepped into the tiny room, and Franz closed the door. Against the opposite wall was a bed, neatly made up. In the center of the room was a small table with three chairs around it. A lantern hung from a hook above the table. The faint smell of Franz Gruber’s dinner lingered on the air.
“Can I get you some tea, Father?”
“Thank you, no. I can’t stay long.”
“How can I help, Father?”
Father Mohr motioned to the table, and the two men sat down. The stove radiated an abundant amount of heat, but it did little to combat the cold draft that stirred in the room whenever the wind battered against the walls.
“The organ will not play,” Father Mohr said. “I worked on it all afternoon, but it is no use.”
“But mass is in less than four hours! What will Christmas Eve be like without music?”
“I prayed for guidance, and after a time it came.”
From his overcoat pocket Father Mohr drew a crinkled yellowing piece of paper and handed it to his friend. Franz unfolded it while the young priest continued.
“While I prayed, I remembered the poem I’d written two years ago when I was at Mariapfarr.” Father Mohr licked his lips. “I hesitate to ask this of you, good friend, but could you write music for this poem? Could you write it for guitar? Could you do it in two hours?”
Franz looked down at the page and read the poem. Then he looked up at Father Mohr and smiled.
“I can do this, Father.”
Father Mohr gripped his friend’s hand.
“In two hours? I must learn the melody and the chords, and the choir must learn its part.”
“In two hours, if not sooner. I’ll be at the church with the song an hour before midnight.”
Father Mohr thanked his friend profusely and stepped out into the restless night. There was a spring in his step as he walked the few blocks back to St. Nicholas Church. The cold no longer bothered him, and an occasional star peeked out from among the clouds.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Father Mohr was tuning his guitar in the candlelit sanctuary when Franz came in. He showed his work to Father Mohr.
“This is perfect!” Father Mohr said.
“We’ve got to get busy,” Franz said.
While Father Mohr learned the chords, Franz gathered the members of the choir who were just beginning to arrive. He sang the song for them.
“You must come in on the last two lines of each verse,” he said.
Father Mohr had been musically gifted since he was a child, so it didn’t take him long to learn the song. Then he and Franz worked with the choir until it was time to begin mass.
Shortly after midnight, Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber stood before the main altar, and Father Mohr began to play. The notes rang out crystal clear like bells on a still night. The two friends sang their composition for the first time in public.
“Silent night, Holy night. All is calm, all is bright . . .”
When they had finished, there was complete silence in the chamber. Father Mohr looked out over his congregation and saw more than a few moist eyes. He set his guitar aside and in a hushed voice led the congregation in prayer.
I’ve taken some liberties with this story. The facts are all true, the names, the locations, the time frame, Father Mohr having been a gifted musician since his childhood. But facts alone do not a story make, so I wrote up something that I believe is a pretty good approximation as to how these events played out. Also, Father Mohr was the assistant priest of St. Nicholas Church (ironic, but the real name of the church—I swear), but history seems to have buried the name of the main priest—at least I never ran across it. For the sake of the story I put Father Mohr in charge. So sue me.
In January, 1819, organ builder and repairman Karl Mauracher came to St. Nicholas Church to repair the organ. Father Mohr shared the song with him. Impressed, Mauracher wrote down the lyrics and learned the melody. He shared “Silent Night” wherever he went. Traveling folk singers and singing groups spread the song through Europe. One of those groups, the Rainers, performed the song in New York in 1839. By the time of the Civil War “Silent Night” had become America’s most popular Christmas song.
Many legends grew up about the song’s origins. One that persists to this day is that mice gnawed through the organ’s bellows, but that tale is like the urban legends and conspiracy theories of modern times; it makes an exciting story, but the truth is that the organ was old, the winter was bitterly cold, and the instrument just broke.
Other legends attributed “Silent Night” to Beethoven, Handel, and Bach. These stories were put to rest after Franz Gruber launched an extensive letter-writing campaign to newspapers and publishers and made public one of his early arrangements. Unfortunately, Father Mohr died in 1848, before he and Gruber were recognized as the composers of “Silent Night.”
For an excellent rendition of “Silent Night” as it might have sounded when Father Mohr played it to his congregation, check out Dave Colvin’s version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOzEG4i0hPo
Copyright 2012 by David Kubicek
All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the author.