Unknown to many, the lovely Christmas song “Silent Night” had quite a stormy, almost dramatic origin. Everything happened in the Catholic parish of Oberndorf, in the Tyrol region of Austria, Europe.
It was the early morning of the 24th of December 1818. In spite of the unusually cold temperature, Fr. Joseph Mohr, the parish priest, was beginning to feel the heat of a big problem that had developed most unexpectedly: the organ of the parish church had broken down and did not seem to have any intention to resume its service in time for the Midnight Mass.
As the worried priest was called to baptize a newborn child, he left the repair of the organ in the hands of the sacristan, hoping that on his return it might finally be fixed. But when he came back one hour later, the situation was still the same.
Fr. Joseph felt as if the whole world was tumbling down on him, as he could anticipate the disappointment of the parishioners at not hearing the familiar sound of the organ, in Austria, is like a man of faith, the middle-aged priest did not totally lose hope. He knelt down in front of the Blessed Sacrament and prayed fervently for a few minutes, seeking strength and consolation from the Lord.
Those minutes spent in prayer proved particularly effective. When Fr. Joseph rose from his kneeler, his eyes were unusually bright. He had found a solution, or so he thought. . . . Immediately he dashed to his writing desk, grabbed a pen, and began to scribble the lines of a simple poem that all of a sudden had started bubbling up in his mind. The child he had baptized a short while earlier and his mother had been the source of inspiration.
When he had finished, he was visibly elated at the thought that he could recite that newly composed poem during the Midnight Mass, as a way to make up for the absence of the sound of the organ. Then he halted for a few seconds: You don’t just recite a poem in church during the homily. A poem is a song, and a song is to be sung! Why not ask his friend and musician Franz Gruber to compose a simple tune that would suit his simple poem?
Fr. Joseph lost no time and hurried to see his friend. As Franz Gruber read the poem, he also felt inspired. In just a couple of hours he came up with a melody that was as simple and as touching as the lyrics. Then and there, Fr. Joseph and the composer sang together the improvised composition several times. It sounded even better than they had anticipated. Now the only uncertainty was how the people would react.
That night, soon after the proclamation of the Gospel, Fr. Joseph announced that he had a surprise for all: a new Christmas carol entitled, “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night).
Franz Gruber and himself would sing it for them to the accompaniment of a guitar since the organ was out of order. . . .
As the singing proceeded, one could see the eyes of the parishioners, young and old, twinkle with deep feeling. A few elderly women furtively wiped their tears. Soon, almost all found themselves swaying their heads to the rhythm of the composition. Before the third stanza was over, the entire congregation was humming the tune with gusto and devotion. No one was missing the organ any more.
When the Mass was over, the parishioners almost mobbed the poor Fr. Joseph and Franz Gruber, demanding a copy of the new composition. They were pacified only when they were promised that the day after — Christmas Day — they could claim their copy as they came for the “High Mass.” Needless to say that on that Christmas Day, the turnout of people was exceptionally big. All joined in singing “Stille Nacht” as if they had been doing that for years! And that, the singing lingered on in the streets as every one went back home.
Such was the origin of “Silent Night,” the Christmas song that has been translated and sung in almost all languages of the world.
— Courtesy: Midnight Mass, Euchalette published by Word and Life Publishing.
P.S. I would like to add on the blog from Word and Life, Silent Night has played in Moderato, 6/8 beats. I always played it in my piano until now the simple song that was composed by Fr. Joseph Mohr and arranged by Franz Gruber into a slow, meditative melody. It is always played at the Presentation of Child Jesus Parish every vigil or midnight mass.