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The story behind the Christmas carol "Silent Night"

“Silent Night” is one of the most famous Christmas carols. The melodic, simplistic and peaceful rendition of the Christmas tale stands testament to its popularity. Even in this modern era, the song is performed all over the world in different languages during celebrations.    

evening snow at church

Origin

The traditional origin of “Silent Night” can be dated back to a chilly winter of 1818 at Oberndorf, a town in Austria. Joseph Mohr, a young and upcoming musician and the protagonist of this narrative, was the priest of the local church. On Christmas Eve, the church organ was discovered as broken, with no avenues to fix it until the snow melts away in spring. Joseph, a determined individual, was not disheartened and took steps to ensure that music prevails during Christmas. He retrieved a poem from down memory lane, which he had crafted two years ago. He collaborated with Franz Gruber, the church organist to look for an alternative instrument and relevant melody for the composition. The two men subsequently performed the carol at a Christmas Mass beautifully. Gruber played the guitar. And the last two lines of each verse that choir repeated had a prolonged impact.

Overview 

The original six-stanza poem written by Joseph Mohr was titled “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” When Mohr asked Franz Gruber to create a guitar accompaniment of the piece, he was equally startled and surprised. He was amazed at the quality of the poem and duly came with a soothing lullaby to accompany the lyrics. Being an organist, he was used to creating music at short notice and did an outstanding job that will go on to leave a mark in the history of festive music.

In 1859, John Freeman Young, an American Episcopal priest translated “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” to “Silent Night” in English. He was assigned to the Trinity Church in New York City, and translating European hymns into English was his favorite pastime. His work is now performed by millions around the world, especially in English-speaking countries.

Cultural Landmark

The iconic status of this Christmas carol makes it hard to comprehend that it’s not some ancient folk composition born out of a misty winter night. However, the origin is a testament to the fact that it’s not just some fairy tale but tracks back to a turbulent period in Europe some 200 years ago.

This carol was a result of chaos and an affluent of a time. The continent was still reeling under the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. It was a period when people were startled with insecurity and financial instability, which was further fuelled by famines, floods, and conflicts. Amidst this disarray, like a phoenix regenerating from its ashes, “Silent Night” spread its wings of compassion over a tiny Austrian town. The soothing effect that signified that the conflict was, at least, finally over.

Initially, the song was a one-night wonder but gradually started earning rave reviews when Karl Mauracher, the eminent organ repairman took the music to Tyrol. His hometown was known for its choirs, and “Silent Night” subsequently was translated and was unfurled across Europe. In 1839, the Rainer Family Singers brought it to the USA during their world tour.

By 1850, the carol was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the States, which led to the court orchestra in Berlin, “Royal Hofkapelle,” started to trace its inception. A brief history of the tune was crafted titled - Authentic Origination of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.”

Usage in Popular Culture

The carol has been utilized in several television features and theatrical films, albeit ostensibly. However, the majority of them are based on fiction. This story is inspired by the original incident involving the broken organ in Oberndorf and was published in the United States in the 1930s.

  • In 1968, it appeared in "The Legend of Silent Night," in a film by Daniel Mann made for television.
  • In 1976, it was utilized by Hanna-Barbera for a short film titled "Silent Night, Holy Night." 
  • In 1978, an arrangement of the composition was created by Alfred Schnittke for piano and violin. The piece was crafted with the intention to greet violinist Gidon Kremer during the holidays. However, due to the portrayal being nightmarish and dissonant, it led to an outrage in Austria.      
  • In 1988, Robin Crichton used the carol in his television special "Silent Mouse" which he produced and directed. The narration was performed by Lynn Redgrave.
  • In 1998, the composition was again used in a "direct-to-video" animated feature 
  • Buster & Chauncey's Silent Night (1998) direct-to-video animated short-film "Buster & Chauncey's Silent Night."
  • In 2012, Christian Vuissa utilized the carol in his film "Silent Night." 
  • In 1994, a rendition of the composition was crafted by Mariah Carey for "Merry Christmas," her 1st studio holiday album. The singer performed, produced and arranged the piece, which went on to sell 15 million copies. It also reached 67th position on the sales chart of "Billboard Digital Song."    
  • The tune of the composition was quoted by Max Rege in "Sieben Stücke, Op. 145," which was the Christmas section of his organ piece. 
  • The carol made its most recent appearance in 2014, in a documentary titled "The First Silent Night," which was recounted by Simon Callow.

Conclusion

Unlike today, "Silent Night" wasn't synonymous with Christmas at that time. It may come across as a surprise, but Christmas wasn't widely observed across the world, especially among the English-speaking population, as recently as the 19th century. New Year's Day was celebrated as a traditional day of exchanging gifts in Britain, while purists ignored it as it was not covered in the Bible.

A song was born on Christmas Eve, a composition that would carve its way into the hearts of billions, and subsequently, get translated into a hundred different languages. Every December, it is sung by people throughout the world, from the chapels of Vatican and Antwerp to the cathedrals in the Andes.    

 

 

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