Franz Xaver Gruber, Joseph Mohr: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem."
~Douglas Adams 

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a group of Serbians (and one Bosniak). This act had a cascading effect, and thus began war like the world had never before seen. Exacerbated by uneasy truces and complicated alliances in a pre-war Europe marked by territorial disputes and multifaceted nationalism, European powers quickly entrenched themselves against each other and what ensued was a massive tactical stalemate which led to war lasting over four years and claiming the lives of 16 million humans.  A tragic consequence of this was that the regions where these conflicts were established would soon become bombarded beyond repair.

"No Man's Land"

By November 1914, there was a continuous line running from the North Sea off the coast of Belgium down to the Swiss border.  Both sides had no advantage over the other and had fortified themselves by digging trenches that offered barely enough protection for the belligerents to survive well enough to rain munitions and gas on each other day after day.  If one party did establish an advantage and actually manage to take more ground, they would quickly be repelled before ever getting the opportunity to defend and hold it. 

However, not all areas of the front were as ruthlessly violent as it may seem.  There are notes and journals from many on the front line, particularly in regions less hotly contested, where a sort of camaraderie arose between the opposing armies as they continuously bombed, shot and gassed one another.  Many of the trenches were within earshot and in the lull between aggressions there would be the occasional communication between sides. Often this would simply be to arrange a mutual time to collect the dead and dying from the appropriately named "no man's land", but as the war lurched on, a strange fraternity began between murderous men who were merely cogs in the machine set in motion by the powers that be.  In some cases truces would take place throughout the night and men from each army would inquire as to how the other was "getting along".  A bond of mutual suffering, perhaps, but also known as the "live and let live" mentality.  Both sides knew the predicaments and isolation facing each other better than anyone else and that also bred a sort of mutual understanding.

Bear in mind, many of these soldiers were relatively young as the age of enlistment was not stringently enforced on either side, so it was not particularly unusual for infantry as young as 16 to be found in the trenches.  This was also well before the era of instant communication and certain regions of the Western front were very isolated from the rest of the world, so communication over no man's land could very well have been the only way to get news from home under certain circumstances, particularly in occupied Belgium where many of the fighting had family in occupied territory.  Now the actual going's on of the prototypical trench war-farer cannot be described with absolute certainty. However, knowing that a great deal were boys, away from home for possibly the first time, being made to sit in frozen mud all day, suffering under the tyranny of machine gun fire, artillery, and chlorine gas- it's not a stretch of the imagination to believe what happens next.


Almost a century prior, in 1816, an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) wrote a poem which he entitled "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht".  The work itself describes the scene immediately following the birth of Jesus and relates to the scripture surrounding the implications of this event. Mohr was at the time serving in a small village outside Berchtesgaden when he drafted the text.

Mohr was a child born out of wedlock and his father was out of the picture, but he was fortunate enough to receive consideration from the Catholic church and thus was educated and learned to play the guitar and violin as well as sing.  In 1811 he began seminary and by 1815 he had been ordained as a priest.

By 1818, he would find himself in the small village of Oberndorf serving as an assistant priest. Now this is where the story gets a little convoluted.  For some reason, Mohr felt an urgent need to take his poem and put it to song in time for the Christmas mass at midnight.  We'll explore that in a moment, but know that he felt it was important enough that he set out to the neighboring town of Arnsdorf to meet up with his friend and fellow musician and Austrian, Franz Gruber (1787-1863).

Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon.
Gruber was born to a family of linen weavers, though he would eventually study to become a school teacher as well as apprenticing under the tutelage of his church's organist, Georg Hartdobler.  In 1816, he took the position of organist and choirmaster at the St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, which is presumably where he came to know Mohr who a short time later was appointed assistant priest to the church in late 1817, possibly early 1818.  Now the fateful night in question has been romanticized many times over since the inception of the tune we are discussing today, but here are the facts.  We know that Mohr wrote the poem in 1816.  We also know from autographed manuscripts from 1820, that Gruber is indeed the author of the melody.  An interesting side note is that his authorship was contested until as recently as 1994, when the 1820 edition was rediscovered and its heritage was made intact. Previously, it had been erroneously attributed to Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn.

Mohr visited Gruber on Christmas Eve, which being as he was clergy and Gruber was the music director is not an unusual thing in and of itself prior to a big service like Christmas mass.  There is a legend that the church organ had broken down for some reason.  I found a few sources claiming it to be due to flooding of a nearby river, rust from lack of maintenance, and even damage from a mouse.

"And so Mickey returns to Valhalla, to slumber and feed."
Another theory is that Mohr, being a guitarist himself wanted to have a special hymn that would be suitable for the instrument and worked with Gruber to create the new hymn to be performed later that evening back in Oberndorf.  The rationale is not of particular importance, but know that many sources on the work tend to implicate some sort of preternatural circumstances that inspired the music to be married to the words.  The reality is we don't know. Neither Mohr nor Gruber ever wrote about it, and only the manuscripts remain.

So in a few hours time Gruber had completed the music and returned with Mohr to the church.  For the mass, the piece was premiered with Mohr singing and accompanying on guitar and Gruber singing and directing the choir, which echoed the last two lines of each of the six stanzas.  The work was well-recieved that evening and was reworked by Gruber several times in the coming months. It remained a local sensation being that Gruber and Mohr lived in the 19th century and they couldn't just upload it to their YouTube channel.

Over the next few decades the piece traveled throughout Austria and into neighboring European countries, carried perhaps initially by organ repairman, Karl Mauracher from Zillertal in the neighboring Austrian state of Tyrol.  Thus, the piece adopted a moniker as the "Tyrolean Carol" despite the fact that it originated within the state of Salzburg.

Despite this misnomer, the work was carried on and about Europe as traveling musical groups, akin to the Von Trapp family singers, incorporated the work into their performances.  It was eventually performed for royalty and even made its way to New York City by 1839, being premiered there by the Ranier Family outside the Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.  In 1859 an English language translation was published by then-priest John Freeman Young, who was at that time working at the Trinity Church as an assistant to what could be considered an inter-church communication department where his fluency in multiple languages paid off as an editor.  He also dabbled in translation of musical text which is what presumably led him to his work with Stille Nacht.  As far as I can determine, he was not present at the Ranier performance, as he had been working in Florida, Texas and Louisiana as a deacon prior to his appointment in New York.  He would later return to Florida, working in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and various regions in South Florida, including what is now Dade county and the Keys.  In 1867 he was ordained Bishop of the Florida diocese of the Episcopal church.

We was too late.

The version you recognize today is not the same as what the congregants of the St. Nicholas cathedral would have heard.  Being passed organically as it passed through many people and languages, there has been considerable alterations made to the melody, most notably the omission of many of the ornamentations that Gruber initially wrote.  I was able to find a version on YouTube that attempts to reproduce the original performance based on what I would have to assume is the 1820 autograph manuscript.  Behold-

You will notice that the last two lines in each stanza have a bit more of a melismatic flair to them than the standard we know today.  It is also a bit more waltz-like in terms of tempo than most of the renditions that we hear today.  In America, the piece is often performed during Christmas Eve services when candles are distributed to parishioners and lit from the Christ candle.  A similar tradition is observed in Austria, where it is considered a national treasure, and the work is typically not performed publicly prior to Christmas Eve, contrary to what we do over here which is play it starting in late August.

Joseph Mohr continued his life as a clergyman, donating much of his salary toward causes like eldercare and education for local children, he himself being a product of financial assistance through the church.  He was honored posthumously by the people of Wagrain in Salzburg, who named the Joseph Mohr School in his memory.  In a report to the bishop, the overseer of St. Johann in Tirol apparently described Mohr as "... a reliable friend of mankind..."


Christmas Eve 1914.  The war had been waging for several months and as stated before, most of the war-zones were effectively stalemated, which resulted in the unusual "live and let live" mentality tentatively holding in various positions along the front.  This manifested in large scale during the cold, Christmas Eve night when as many as 100,000 soldiers declared an unofficial truce and crossed the trenches into No Man's Land, where they exchanged rudimentary gifts with their enemies, often just swapping buttons off their uniforms or sharing rations or tobacco together.  They conducted joint burial services for their fallen and possibly engaged in matches of soccer (or football- depending on your perspective).  It is described in the journal of Captain Robert Patrick Miles of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry:
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. 
The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. 
Not a shot was fired all night.

In some regions the truce continued onward through the new year, with many soldiers simply refusing to retreat to cover and the other side not willing to murder them in cold-blood.  It was such a unique set of circumstances for this to occur, in the shadow of the most destructive event to date in mankind's history- to think humanity might've prevailed, even for a fleeting moment.

The war engineers of the day saw differently.  Much of the Christmas Truce was suppressed in the media in Germany and France, and only came to light in England and America a week after the initial event.  It was lamented that following such a respite from the slaughtering, the violence would simply resume.  In Germany and France it was considered treasonous behavior and subsequent Christmas' saw only attempts at fraternity being made, but such advances ultimately rebuffed.

Much like the history of Silent Night, the Christmas Truce is an easy target for holiday romanticization. There is no shortage of breathless hyperbole and evangelistic-driven commentary available on both events which in my opinion serve only to cheapen the memories of the actors behind the experiences.

We do know that by 1914, Silent Night was as well-known in England, Belgium and France as it was in Germany and Austria.  The words were translated, but the melody remained mostly intact and universally understood.  And we also know that at least in one instance, somewhere in the miles of filth, metal and blood, someone began singing it in their native tongue, only to hear it echoed en masse from across the way.  The melody taken by itself is a simple one, perhaps set apart from its humble beginnings and text, it might not have even merited a publication.  However, this simple act of singing, coupled with the exhaustion of war and death caused a remarkable thing to happen, however brief it may have been.

I think it speaks volumes to how we perceive and observe Christmas today. And no, this isn't a sort of commentary on the calamitous commercialization of the holiday, or a diatribe on the Puritanical reaction to a perceived "War on Christmas".  In this example it took the force of tens of millions of individuals, all disturbed in the wake of a cataclysmic series of events, all pushing an unstoppable force into an immovable object, driven by a seemingly infinite supply of resources devoted to obliteration to create a lull at the event horizon.  Within that lull, a small quiet stillness occurred that, beyond all the noise and fury of propaganda and drums, allowed the germination of a small realization. The realization that despite our different clothes and languages and homelands we exist together.  Together on this speck of dust floating in a vacuum so large that it defies mortal comprehension.

And within that infinitesimally small and quiet space, someone began to sing.

See you next Friday.



Many thanks to Bill Egan and the late John Cowart for their highly-informative and insightful commentary which provided a great deal of the research for my own entry and pointed me in some interesting directions.