The forgotten story of Silent Night

Silent Night is one of the best-known songs in the world. It has been translated into over 200 languages and one version alone, Bing Crosby’s 1937 recording, sold over 30 million copies. But who knows anything of its authors?

The lyrics to Silent Night were written by a somewhat loose-living Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr in 1816. On Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr – now at St Nicholas in Oberndorf in the state of Salzburg – handed the poem to Franz Gruber, the church’s part-time organist, and asked him to write a melody for two solo voices, accompanied by the church choir and a guitar. Later that evening, the song was performed for the first time – most likely in front of the church’s nativity. Mohr and Gruber sang the two vocal parts, tenor and bass respectively, themselves.

There is no evidence to support the myth that Gruber’s composition was inspired by the recent death of his child. Nor is it true that the song was first played on guitar because the church organ wasn’t working. A further fiction, which attributes the organ’s failure to a mouse gnawing at its bellows, is a 20th-century embellishment.

The song’s wider fame is happenstance. The Strassers, a family of travelling glovemakers from the Tyrol, who sang folk songs as a side line, took it up. By 1832, their performance of it was well known enough to be requested in the Leipzig press. Another Tyrolean singing family, the Rainers, then took it to the US, singing it in front of Alexander Hamilton’s tomb on Christmas Day 1839.

The song grew in popularity over the next two decades, but as it grew its origins – and authors – were forgotten. It was widely assumed that Johann Michael Haydn, younger brother of the more famous Joseph, was its composer until the Royal Imperial Court Music Chapel in Berlin took an interest in 1854 and unearthed Mohr and Gruber, neither of whom had received either recognition or remuneration for their creation.

For Mohr it was already too late.

This piece first appeared in the December 2020 Months Past column in History Today.

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