We're looking at some of the best-known Christmas songs and the stories behind them. This time: "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" (Silent Night, Holy Night).
Oberndorf near Salzburg, December 23, 1818: to celebrate the holiday season the Catholic curate Joseph Mohr wrote a special poem and asked his friend, the local school teacher Franz Xaver Gruber, to compose a melody to fit - something simple so that he could sing it the next day during Christmas Eve service with a minimum of rehearsal. Since the organ in the St. Nikola church was out of service, Mohr also asked Gruber to accompany him on guitar.
It wasn't just the congregation at the Christmas mass that were impressed by the new song, so too was organ maker Karl Mauracher, newly arrived from Zillertal to repair the church's broken instrument. Fascinated, he took the sheet music for the new Christmas carol back to Zillertal with him and ensured that the melody became well known around the Salzach River region.
Tyrolean folk song
In those days travelling musicians from the Zillertal went from town to town dressed in traditional regional costumes: lederhose, dirndl and Tyrolean hat. Visiting town markets, they performed their songs for the public. In 1832, a group of musicians found themselves at a Christmas market in Leipzig, where the "Leipziger Tagblatt" newspaper wrote, "It was requesed that the musicians perform the beautiful Christmas song 'Silent Night,' and they did." The pleasing serenade didn't go unnoticed. The following year Robert Friese, publisher of the "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (New Magazine for Music), published the song under the title "Ächthes Tyroler Volkslied" (Genuine Tyrolean Folk Song).
Six years later the Ludwig Rainer Choir, on tour in America, sung "Silent Night" for the first time in New York. The performance was given at the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in the Trinity Church cemetery at the end of Wall Street.
A timeless classic
Today "Silent Night" is a classic, translated into more than 300 languages. Countless books and films tell its story. In 2011 it was suggested for the UNESCO cultural heritage list as the "epitome of the Christmas song." Since the first recording in 1905, it has appeared in countless versions on vinyl and CD; among the best known is Bing Crosby's 1935 version, which to this day has sold around 10 million copies.
Despite its status as one of the most solemn Christmas songs, the melody had other uses over the years. In 1900 the Polish poet Boleslaw Strzelewicz turned it into an ode to the working class: "Silent night, sad night, workers awaken!" The song was again appropriated by textile workers in Crimmitschau, Saxony in 1903, on strike demanding more free time. They used "Silent Night" as their rallying cry: "Holy night, the battle rages on, work goes on, we want a little of life back!"
By 1970 "Silent Night" stood for everything left wing intellectuals loathed about Christmas. As author Peter Schütt reported, they considered the festive season a "hypocritical spectacle, a festival of lazy peace and consumer frenzy." The musician Dieter Süverkrüp recorded a satirical version on his album "Nasty Christmas Songs." It was a swipe against the bourgeoisie and their obsession with consumerism: "Cheap night, hasty night, hire purchase made easy thanks to the angels!"