On December 24th 1818 then assistant priest Joseph Mohr at the newly established parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf gave the organist Franz Gruber (also school teacher in Arnsdorf) a poem titled “Silent Night,” asking him to write a melody for two solo voices, choir and guitar. Later that day Gruber gave Mohr his composition. Mohr liked it, and included it in the Christmas mass that evening. Mohr sang tenor and provided accompaniment with guitar, while Gruber sang bass. According to Gruber, the song was met with “general approval by all” — mostly shipping laborers, boat builders and their families.
In Gruber’s later account there is no mention of the specific inspiration for creating the song. One supposition is that the church organ was no longer working, so Mohr and Gruber therefore created a song for accompaniment by guitar. Surrounding this premiere performance of “Silent Night” many romantic stories and legends have added their own mythology to the known facts.
But the known facts are enough: “Silent Night” was created and first performed during difficult times. The Napoleonic wars (1792-1815), which had caused great suffering, had come to an end. With the Congress of Vienna there were new borders and a new order for Europe. One consequence was that the ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg lost its status as an independent country and was forced to secularize. In 1816, its lands were divided in two, with part assigned to Bavaria and the larger part to Austria. The site where “Silent Night” was first performed – Oberndorf by Salzburg – had been a suburb of Laufen and was now separated from its town center across the river (today part of Bavaria, Germany) when the Salzach River became the new border. For centuries transportation of salt along the river had driven the local economy. The salt trade declined during the Napoleonic wars, and never fully recovered. This caused a depression in the local economy, with the transport companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Mohr’s previous place of service, Mariapfarr, had suffered worse during the withdrawal of the Bavarian occupation troops in 1816 and 1817. Mohr was in the midst of these events when he wrote the words to “Silent Night” in 1816.
The Christmas carol “Silent Night” — such a beautiful thing born from sorrowful times. Not unlike the Christ Himself.