Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Silent Night


by Catherine Curzon

As Christmas approaches, we trim up our houses and trees, gather friends and family near and cook up some extra-special treats. Christmas in our household has always had its own special soundtrack too, and that enormous playlist that accompanies a Curzon December ranges from classical to rock and everything in between. Of course, carols are a huge part of any traditional Christmas and it truly feels magical to light the fire, turn out the electric light and spend an evening relaxing to the strains of Christmas carols, accompanied by a good book, a sleepy dog and something nice to drink.

One of my favourite carols is Silent Night and, appropriately given my specialist subject, it’s a piece that has its origins in the long 18th century. It’s not strictly Georgian and, though it was written in 1818, it’s not Regency either because Silent Night first rang out across the snow-flecked land of Austria, far from British shores.

In 1817 Father Joseph Mohr came from Mariapfarr in Salzburg to take up a position in a new parish. His new position was in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where he was to serve as an assistant priest to those who worshipped at the St Nicholas parish church. Oberndorf was a small town, little more than a village, and the young priest was looking forward to his new role. A keen amateur poet, when he arrived in 1817 he was carrying in his bag a six stanza poem that would one day become famous.

The organist and choirmaster at the church of St Nicholas was a man named Franz Xaver Gruber. He and Father Mohr were soon friends and for two years they worked together harmoniously in the church, one preaching, one playing to the congregation.

In 1818, Father Mohr was planning a midnight mass for Christmas Eve when he remembered that poem he had written two years earlier. His mind kept returning to the verses and he wondered whether it might do as the basis for a brand new carol that could have its world premiere at the mass. It was a simple poem celebrating the birth of Jesus and recounting the nativity scene around the manger, and it seemed to Father Mohr as though it would be perfect for the occasion.

On a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Father Mohr set out from Oberndorf and walked two miles to Gruber’s home in Arnsdorf bei Laufen. He showed Gruber the poem and asked if he thought he could set it to music in time for the mass that night. Together the two men went to the church of St Nicholas, where they began work. The church organ wasn’t working properly that night so Gruber sat down with his guitar - always his favourite musical instrument - and went to work. In just a few hours he had composed the melody that became famous as Silent Night. It was given the title of Stille Nacht and at the midnight mass, the choir of St Nicholas gave the first ever performance of the well-loved carol.

Soon everyone was talking about the beautiful new carol that had been performed in the small church that night. As the years passed, it became an Austrian staple and from there, new arrangements began to be heard all over the continent. Gruber was deeply involved in creating many of these new arrangements, creating versions of the song for the organ as well as guitar and writing numerous other arrangements of traditional carols, which have become staples of Austrian Christmas services. Sadly the original manuscript created on Christmas Eve 1818 has been lost, though a manuscript in Mohr’s hand dated 1820 does exist.

According to the popular story, Stille Nacht became Silent Night in 1859 when John Freeman Young, a priest in New York, translated the original German piece into English. He slowed the song down too and it’s this slightly different arrangement that is most well known today. Although it’s often heard throughout the advent period, Father Mohr actually didn’t intend for his carol to be performed on any day other than Christmas Eve and in Austrian churches, this is still the case.

However, hidden within the pages of The Morning Post for Saturday, January 6, 1855, (issue 25277), is a very tantalising report of a concert that was given at Merton College, Oxford. The extract reads:
A few evenings ago, a large party assembled in the fine old dining hall of this college to listen to a performance of Christmas carols by the entire choirs of Holywell and St-Peter's-in-the-East. [...] The carols were chiefly from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge's Collection, and from Mr Helmore's little publication [...] but, in addition, an American and German, "Silent Night, beautiful in both words and music, were presented.

This appears to be the first mention of the carol by its English title in the British press, and it comes four years before John Freeman Young published his famous, canonical translation. Of course, the song must have had English translations prior to Young's setting it down in print and it's likely that this was simply one of the many unofficial arrangements and translations that were doing the rounds of Europe in addition to Gruber's own Stille Nacht cottage industry. We will never know the words of the translation that were performed in Oxford that evening but the image is a compelling one, with the scholars gathered by candlelight to listen to a version of the now legendary carol. Perhaps somewhere one of those hymn sheets awaits discovery but, wishful that thought is, it's unlikely that the version performed in Oxford will ever be ascertained.

Sadly, the Church of St Nicholas where that carol first rang out no longer stands. After multiple instances of flooding, the church was demolished in 1913. In its place the Stille-Nacht-Kapelle, or Silent Night Chapel, was erected in 1937. Every year, at 5pm on Christmas Eve, a mass is held at the chapel and Silent Night is performed in a variety of languages, recognising the people who have made the pilgrimage to Oberndorf. Those who visit say it’s a magical experience and the ideal way to start the Christmas festivities.

Wherever you may be and however you may be spending the Christmas season, I hope yours will be peaceful, happy and one to remember!


Further Reading

http://www.henle.de/blog/en/2012/12/24/‘silent-night’-revisited/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christmas/carols_1.shtml

Cryer, Max. Love Me Tender. Exisle Publishing: 2008.

Montgomery, June and Renfrow, Kenon. Stories of the Great Christmas Carols. Alfred Music, 2003.

Mulder John M & Roberts, F Morgan. 28 Carols to Sing at Christmas. Wipf and Stock, 2015.

Pauli, Hertha. Silent Night: The Story of a Song. Knopf, 1943.

Scott, Brian. But Do You Recall? Lulu, 2017.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain.

She has written extensively for publications including HistoryExtra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. Catherine has spoken at venues and events including the Stamford Georgian Festival, the Jane Austen Festival, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House. In addition, she has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at Kenwood House, Godmersham Park, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Jane Austen Festival, Bath, and the Stamford Georgian Festival.

Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.


Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
Connect with Catherine through her website (http://madamegilflurt.com), Facebook, Twitter (@MadameGilflurt), Google Plus, Pinterest, and Instagram.

8 comments:

  1. A very delightful post! Thanks for posting!

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  2. This is one of my favorite carols. Lovely post. Thank you!

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  3. Wonderful story behind the Christmas song we love. Thanks for sharing Catherine!

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  4. How wonderful. Many years ago I was able to visit this chapel in Austria. It was a beautiful experience. Thank you for sharing. Merry Christmas.

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    1. And a Merry Christmas to you; I'd love to visit the chapel, maybe one day!

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Comments with opposing viewpoints are allowed if they are not written in an unnecessarily confrontational or arrogant manner.