The monument built in memory of the composition of Silent Night
The monument built in memory of the composition of Silent Night © Getty  /  Wolfgang Weinhäupl

Silent Night: the story of a Christmas carol

The magic of Christmas would not exist without music...and certainly not without the famous Silent Night, today translated into over one hundred languages. This widely beloved Christmas carol was first performed in 1818 in a small Austrian church...

It must have been cold on 24 December 1818 in the small town of Oberndorf in Austria, approximately twenty kilometers from Salzburg. That night, in the church of Saint-Nicholas, the villagers heard for the first time the carol Silent Night

Today, the emblematic birthplace of one of Christmas's most iconic carols no longer stands. The church was damaged in 1899 during a flood before being completely demolished and replaced symbolically in the 20th century by an octagonal chapel in which tourists today can gather. 

The truth behind the legend

The story behind the famous carol resembles a Christmas tale, full of legend and romanticism... It goes back to 1816, two whole years before the creation of Silent Night, and involves two key protagonists in the small Austrian village: Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber.

The first was a priest at the church of Saint-Nicholas, the second a teacher from the nearby town of Arnsdorf and the organist of the church of Saint-Nicholas. Legend has it that the melody was composed on the eve of Christmas as the organ was out of order... The two men therefore composed Silent Night, a melody sung the very next day with a guitar accompaniment. 

Le manuscrit de Douce Nuit.
Le manuscrit de Douce Nuit. © Getty  /  Imagno

Two voices, a choir, and a guitar

The real story is much less novelistic and romantic. The text was written by Joseph Mohr when he was still in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr. A manuscript was found in 1995, confirming that the words were put to paper in 1816. The following year the priest was sent to Oberndorf and met the town's organist. Mohr presented the poem to the musician and asked whether he could put the words to music for two soloists, a choir, and a guitar. Franz Xaver Gruber quickly began composing a work of music that would eventually become one of the most popular Christmas carols.

Word quickly spread of the beautiful work throughout the country, and in 1866 the first edition of Silent Night was published by the German publisher and bookseller August Robert Friese. For a while, the origin of the popular carol was attributed to a variety of great composers: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven… until the carol's true story was eventually uncovered and the original manuscript was found.

An infinite source of different inspirations

Today, Silent Night has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects, and has been recorded by countless of the music industry's biggest names including Nat King Cole, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey… The carol has also often been used in cinema, notably in Merry Christmas (2005), which recounts the Christmas winter break of German, French and Scottish soldiers during the First World War. The three sides share a moment of communion with a variety of traditional Christmas carols, a true story in which the carol Silent Night is performed by Rolando Villazon

The film even inspired an opera, Silent Night, released in 2011. The American composer, Kevin Matthew Puts, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the work, his first opera.

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