Christmas Lyn

Silent Night

Updated June 14, 2024
Source: Pexels

Silent Night is one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time. It carries a universally important message to Christians all over the world.

Despite the song’s popularity, not many are familiar with the fascinating history of Silent Night.

Silent Night lyrics were written during a troublesome period in European history when the region was suffering from political, economic, and societal consequences of nature cataclysms and wars.

The author’s desire was to bring hope and faith to struggling people.

Initially written in German, the song has been since translated into over 300 languages, with numerous versions of each adaptation.

It was performed by top-rated artists, selling in dozens of millions of copies worldwide.

Today, Silent Night is considered an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, and its history is immortalized in the Silent Night Chapel in Salzburg.

Lyrics

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

Composing

Silent Night lyrics were written in German under the name Stille Nacht Heilige Nacht by a young Austrian priest Joseph Mohr right after the Napoleonic Wars in 1816 in Mariapfarr.

The country then has been undergoing a challenging time full of economic and social issues.

If that wasn’t enough, 1816 is known as the year without a summer since volcanic eruptions of 1815 in Indonesia have caused climate change across the entire Europe.

As a result, the summer was catastrophically cold and, in some regions, snowy.

Climate change led to crop failure and widespread famine. In such a gruesome atmosphere, poverty-stricken and devastated, Joseph Mohr started writing six verses that conveyed his hope and faith in God.

As Mohr was not just a priest but also a talented violinist and guitarist, he could have probably composed the tune for the song himself. However, instead, he sought help from his friend and organist Franz Xaver Gruber.

According to a legend, Mohr asked Grubber to compose an accompaniment specifically for guitar rather than for organ as the church organ was damaged by a river flooding.

However, the story was regarded as fictional in the 1930s. Perhaps, the reason Mohr asked Gruber to create a guitar accompaniment was that Mohr himself was a guitar player.

The harmony and melody of the song are based on the Italian musical style siciliano, which is meant to resemble the sound of rolling waves, with two large rhythmic beats split into three parts each.

Years later, the Saint Nicholas Church in Salzburg Mohr has been working at was destroyed entirely by another flooding and replaced with the Silent Night Chapel. The chapel stands to this day and is open for visitors.

Spreading Around the World

Silent Night was first performed in 1818 by the writer and composer Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber themselves. Mohr played on the guitar, and Gruber sang along with the melody.

An organ builder Karl Mauracher, who was repairing the organ at Saint Nicholas Church and has heard the performance, took home a copy of the song manuscript. It was later picked up by two traveling families of folk singers.

These families then performed the song around northern and central Europe. Specifically, the Reiner family performed the composition in 1819 for an audience including Alexander I of Russia and Franz I of Austria.

Later, the Strasser family sang the song for the King of Prussia in 1834, and the Rainer family performed it outside of Trinity Church in New York in 1839.

Thanks to the traveling folk, the song has spread around entire Europe and the USA.

The composition was quickly gaining popularity. It was performed in churches and town squares and was translated into over 300 languages.

During World War I, Silent Night was even sung at the battlefield during a temporary truce on Christmas.

The Lost Manuscript

Over the years, the original Silent Night manuscript was lost, and people have forgotten the authors of the song. It became surrounded by endless speculations – some even suggested the music was composed by Mozart, Beethoven, or Haydn.

The original manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was discovered only in 1994. Researchers concluded the manuscript dated 1820, and it stated the lyrics were written by Mohr in 1816 and the music by Gruber in 1818.

The Story Behind

The narrative of Silent Night lyrics is simple and therefore comprehensible for any Christian around the world. This, combined with a delightful melody, granted the song astonishing popularity.

The song is based on the Nativity story, telling about infant Christ sleeping in his crib on a peaceful, silent night.

The second verse narrates about shepherds praising the birth of their Savior, proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ the Savior is born!”

The concluding verse yet again praises Jesus and mentions the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Wise Men with gifts to Jesus, referring to it as a wondrous star in Klein’s adaptation.

Meaning & Symbolism

Silent Night was written in a hard time for all Europeans and Mohr in particular. Inspired by war and poverty, it carries an important message about peace and kindness that unites people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds.

The song’s purpose was to provide people with hope in our Lord and Savior and each other, offering comfort and solace to those suffering and in need. Silent Night sounds like a lullaby that relieves all fears and pain and brings inner harmony.

Perhaps, the song’s message was never more important than during World War I, when British and German soldiers sang the song together after laying down their weapons. At that moment, Silent Night truly became the embodiment of world peace.

English Translation

Perhaps, the most famous Silent Night version, along with the original German, is the English translation.

Its most famous but not the first adaptation was written by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young serving at the Trinity Church in New York in 1859.

The Reiner family, who have picked the manuscript copy from Karl Mauracher from Salzburg, performed the song near this very church 20 years earlier.

Not many know, but the translation only features three out of six Mohr’s original verses. Today, only the first, second, and sixth verses from the original Mohr’s lyrics are usually sung.

In 1998, a newer English translation by Bettina Klein was officially approved by the Silent Night Museum in Salzburg.

Klein strived to leave the lyrics uncharged whenever possible, yet in some parts, Young’s and Klein’s versions very noticeably.

For instance, the phrase “Nur das traute hochheilige Paar, Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar” was translated by Young as “Round yon Virgin mother and child, Holy infant so tender and mild.”

Klein, in turn, translated it as “Round yon godly tender pair, Holy infant with curly hair.”

Overall, the official site of the Silent Night Museum in Salzburg mentions over 25 English translations of the song.

Some only include two verses, whereas others translate the entire six. And while the core narrative remains unchanged, the wording often differs drastically.

The earliest English translation of Silent Night is dated 1849 and was written by J. F. Warner.

Unlike Young’s and Klein’s translations, it explicitly mentions the Star of Bethlehem by its actual name and Israel as Christ’s birthplace.

The melody has also been altered over time since the song was mainly performed by traveling singers and in many languages.

Gruber’s original was performed in moderato tune and siciliano rhythm, whereas the modern version is performed as a meditative lullaby or pastorale.

Cultural Influence

Silent Night had a major cultural influence and was recorded numerous times in different languages and music genres. In 2011, the song was declared intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Today, Silent Night can’t be performed in Austria publicly before Christmas Eve. It can’t be used for commercial purposes either.

The situation in other European countries is the exact opposite – Silent Night is played throughout the entire Christmas season in shopping malls, radio, and TV commercials.

The Saint Nicholas Church in Salzburg Silent Night was first performed at was replaced with the Silent Night Chapel in 1937. The interior of the chapel features a stained-glass window depicting Joseph Mohr with a brief history of the chapel.

Some of the most popular Silent Night recordings include Mariah Carey’s, Elvis Presley’s, and Sinead O’Connors.

However, the most famous version of Silent Night was performed by Bing Crosby back in 1935. It had such an astonishing success that the song was sold in over 30 million copies.

Today, it is considered the second best-selling Christmas single of all time.

The history of song creation has also inspired several film and theatrical directors. In 1968, The Legend of Silent Night was directed by Daniel Mann.

In 1976, the Hanna-Barbera studio released the Silent Night, Holy Night animated short film.

Two decades later, a direct-to-video animated film Buster & Chauncey’s Silent Night narrating about two mice was created by Buzz Potamkin in collaboration with Columbia TriStar Home Video Project.

Newer releases dedicated to Silent Night include the 2012 movie Silent Night directed by Christian Vuissa, the 2014 documentary The First Silent Night by Simon Callow, and the 2020 documentary Silent Night – A Song for the World.

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