Thursday, December 24, 2009

First Performance of Silent Night, 1818

On Christmas Eve in 1818 the song, "Silent Night" was performed for the first time. The setting was the Christmas Eve service at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Traditions abound concerning the circumstances of the song's composition. One of the most popular claims that the church's organ broke, so the pastor, Joseph Mohr, wrote something simple that could be played on guitar. However, a manuscript of the song was found in Mohr's handwriting that has 1816 as the year the words were written. Franz Gruber wrote the music probably in 1818, and John Freeman Young translated the original German into English in 1859 or 1863. Wikipedia gives 1859 as the year.

Whatever were the actual circumstances, it is obvious that "Silent Night" has become one of the most popular Christmas carols ever. It's popularity was seen dramatically almost a hundred years later in the trenches of World War I during the Christmas Truce of 1914. On Christmas Eve German troops began singing some of their carols , and the British responded with English carols. Both sides sang "Silent Night" in their own languages because it was one of the few carols that they all knew. It was a time of unofficial cease-fire, peace, and even camaraderie. The opponents shouted greetings to each other, came out of their trenches, and exchanged gifts before the fighting resumed a few days later.

The song's message of "the dawn of redeeming grace" arouses our desire for the noon day, when redeeming grace shines brightest at Christ's return and we have real, lasting peace.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King;
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

A good resource on this and other hymns is Treasury of Great Hymns and Their Stories by Mrs. Guye Johnson (appears to be out of print).