In December 2017, I entered a little eight-sided chapel atop a knoll in Oberndorf, Austria, and took a seat in one of the six pews. One by one, travelers from other parts of the world came in and sat down. Two men playing guitars led us in singing the song we’d all come to pay homage to: “Silent Night.”
In 1818, in the church that once stood here, Joseph Mohr, who wrote the song’s lyrics, and Franz Xaver Gruber, who composed its melody, sang it for the first time, using only a guitar as accompaniment. In 1818, Gruber taught in Arnsdorf and served as the organist at the parish church in nearby Oberndorf. In the days preceding Christmas that year, his friend Mohr, the assistant priest at the church, handed Gruber a poem he’d composed and asked Gruber to set it to music. Gruber went home and in a cloudburst of creativity put together the melody. He and Mohr sang the song after Christmas Mass, in front of the church’s Nativity scene.
The story might have ended there had not organ builder Carl Mauracher learned about the song the following year, when he was called in to work on Oberndorf’s defective organ. He was so enchanted with “Stille Nacht,” as the carol is known in German, he took it home with him to his village of Fügen in the Zillertal Valley, about 40 miles away.
Two families from that valley, the Rainers and the Strassers, had sets of singing siblings who then sang the carol on their tours of Europe, purportedly even performing it before Austria’s emperor and Russia’s czar. U.S. audiences heard the song for the first time when the Rainers performed it in New York City in 1839.