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AUSTRIA'S FAMOUS CAROL - Silent Night, Holy Night

By Ray Chatelin

Photos By Toshi

The most famous Christmas song ever written had its origins on Salzburg’s right bank, at Steingasse 31, where Joseph Mohr was born on December 11, 1792, to Anna Schoiberin. He was the fourth child of a woman who never married and who lived with Joseph Franz Mohr, a soldier.

That would have been the last the world ever heard of Mohr, except for the fact that 26 years later, his six verses for a song called Silent Night, Holy Night, was played in the nearby town of Oberndorf, at the parish church.

Silent Night was first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, in St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, and it’s there you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about Mohr and his composer-collaborator, Franz Gruber – two men of whom, without Silent Night, history would otherwise have said nothing.

The original church is no longer there. Instead, there is a Silent-Night-Memorial-Chapel standing on the original site. Floods in the 1890s destroyed the town, St. Nicholas Church was torn down and a new church was built on higher ground in 1906. The Silent Night Memorial Chapel was erected in the 1920's on the altar site of the original St. Nicholas church.

And, every year at 5 p.m. on December 24th, a memorial service in honor of the creators of the Silent Night carol takes place in front of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel. Thousands of people from around the world attend this ceremony and sing "Silent Night!" in many languages at the conclusion of this moving ceremony.

Ordained on August 21, 1815, by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salzburg, Mohr spent his whole life as a priest. One of his lay teachers/organist in Oberndorf was Franz Xaver Gruber.

In late December, 1818, Mohr asked his colleague to write music for the poem he had written. The idea was to sing this new song on Christmas Eve. So, Gruber put together music for two solo voices, accompanied by a guitar. It would turn out to be Gruber’s only published work.

The words had been written two years prior, in 1816, and that original manuscript still exists, though it wasn’t discovered until recently when a volunteer at Salzburg’s Carolino Augusteum Museum casually mentioned that she had a framed manuscript of the world-famous carol.

Many of those stories claimed that Mohr feverishly wrote the words on Dec. 24, 1818 to provide a guitar-accompanied carol for Midnight Mass since the organ in Oberndorf’s St. Nicholas’ Church was not working.

Not so. In fact, when Mohr showed the words to Gruber, the church organist, Gruber suggested that these words should be accompanied by Mohr’s guitar. Gruber softly strummed the melody that came to him, worked on integrating words and music, and finished in plenty of time.

Today you can build an entire travel itinerary around Mohr and Gruber. Mariapfar, 110 km south of Salzburg, is where Mohr lived at the time he wrote his poem in 1816. While he served at the pilgrim church, he could visit the nearby home of his grandfather, which is now a designated historical site. Liturgical art can be viewed in the church as you examine the continuing fresco restoration.

South of Salzburg is the charming, medieval town of Hallein minutes from Salzburg, where Gruber was appointed choirmaster in Hallein in 1835. He continued to write music there until his death in 1863 producing numerous Masses, carols, and hymns – none of which have lasted.

The Franz Gruber Museum is located in the apartment where he lived with his family. One room displays furniture belonging to the family, along with two of Gruber's keyboard instruments.

Photo by Toshi Chatelin of Chatelin Features.

There’s an arrangement of the carol, handwritten by Gruber, along with Joseph Mohr's guitar, believed to be the instrument used for the premier performance of the carol in Oberndorf in 1818. Gruber's grave is near the entrance to the museum.

In the ski hamlet of Wagrain, 70 km west of Salzburg, you can attend services in the church where Mohr preached and died in 1848. His grave is located in the churchyard across from the Josef Mohr School. You don’t have to be a skier to ride the cable cars and enjoy the spectacular views.

In Arnsdorf, near Oberndorf, the Franz Xaver Gruber Museum, on the second floor of the school house where he served as the schoolmaster, contains furniture and mementos depicting life in the early 19th century.

Next door, in Maria am Mosel Church, you can see the recently restored pipe organ that Gruber played during church services. The Silent Night Carillon plays the original Gruber melody, and can be heard across the countryside.

And, if you don’t want to leave the North American continent to visit the Oberndorf chapel, there’s a replicated building of it in Frankenmuth, Michigan, built in 1992 with the endorsement of Oberndorf officials.

On every Christmas Eve, a guitarist leads visitors in singing "Silent Night" – just as it’s done in Austria.

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