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Culture

Silent Night still as popular as ever almost 200 years on

It's been performed and covered countless times and is without doubt one of the world's best-loved Christmas carols. But Silent Night – a song known the world over – has very humble origins.

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A popular song at church services for almost 200 years

Silent Night's roots can be traced back to the tiny village of Oberndorf in the state of Salzburg, Austria. It was written by priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and in its original German form was called, "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht", literally, "silent night, holy night."

Mohr's lyrics were then set to music by schoolteacher Franz Xaver Gruber and the song was first performed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria during the Christmas service of December 24th 1818. Unlike the dreamy lullaby we know today, in its original incarnation it was an up-tempo dance tune.

All is calm, all is bright

Priester Joseph Mohr und der Lehrer Franz Gruber

Silent Night's composers: Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber

As Mohr's written reminiscences make no mention of a source of inspiration for the song, its imagined origins have spawned a number of urban myths over the years.

One story has it that the organ in the Church of St. Nicholas was broken and so a new song had to be hastily written for a different instrument.

Another, and perhaps more likely explanation, suggests that Mohr simply wanted a new Christmas song he could play on his guitar.

The song was translated into English in 1859 by John Freeman Young, second bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, and quickly became a popular Christmas standard both in religious services and with door-to-door carol singers.

During the 1914 World War I Christmas Truce, Silent Night was sung simultaneously by servicemen in English, French and German; the only song soldiers on both sides of the front line had in common.

Sleep in heavenly peace

Stille-Nacht-Kapelle

Popular with tourists: the Silent Night Memorial Chapel in Oberndorf

Over the decades the song has steadily gained popularity, and has been recorded time and again by pop artists such as The Temptations, Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley.

They each added their own personal touches to the carol, and Mahalia Jackson’s lazy, blues-influenced version even holds the rather unusual honor of being one of the best-selling singles of all time … in Norway.

Since its first performance on that chilly Christmas Eve in 1818, Silent Night has since been translated into 44 languages and remains, to this day, one of the world’s best known and beloved carols.

Author: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Tamsin Walker

For more on the Silent Night story and for excerpts from different versions of the song, click the link below and listen to the current edition of Deutsche Welle's Music this Week.

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