The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol "Silent Night"

Dec 19, 2018

It was 200 years ago when "Silent Night" was first heard by Austrian villagers attending Christmas Eve mass in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf.

How did this simple melody, with its words of comfort, become a beloved hymn of peace throughout the world? WRTI's Susan Lewis has the story.

In Philadelphia, the bicentennial of "Silent Night" was celebrated at the Kimmel Center on December 17th when WRTI's Gregg Whiteside hosted The Silent Night Sing-In.

It's a song 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," says composer/conductor John Conahan, who has organized the Silent Night Sing-In, and has created a new arrangement of the famous carol. "He was inspired...the town was at peace."

It was Christmas Eve, 1818, when the now-famous carol was first performed as Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht. Joseph Mohr, the young priest who wrote the lyrics, played the guitar and sang along with Franz Xaver Gruber, the choir director who had written the melody.

An organ builder and repair man 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.

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. In 1994, an original manuscript was found in Mohr's handwriting, with Gruber named as composer.

Today, the Franz Xaver Gruber Museum in Hallein and the Joseph Mohr School in Wagrain, Austria honor the creators of this classic carol. The Stille Nacht Gesellschaft—or Silent Night Society—hosts a virtual Silent Night museum, tracks events, and promotes the use of all six verses, which in the words of Silent Night Society president "[encourage] peace and [demand] responsibility for the globe."

The English version of "Silent Night" is typically sung in three verses corresponding with the original 1, 6, and 2.

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.

Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight! Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing Alleluia! Christ, the Savior is born, Christ, the Savior is born.

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love's pure light. Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Check out these recordings of "Silent Night" from around the world