Story and Origins of Famous Songs Silent Night

About the history, origins, and story behind the famous song and Christmas Carol Silent Night.


"SILENT NIGHT," Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr--1818

On Christmas Eve, 1818, the organ broke down in the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, a town near Salzburg, Austria. Franz Gruber, a temporary organist, saved the day by composing music for a new hymn, "Song of Heaven," which could be sung to the accompaniment of a guitar, the only other instrument available. The assistant priest, Joseph Mohr, wrote the words. That evening, the song was sung to the plaintive and expressive sounds of the guitar.

"Silent Night" might have been lost forever had not Gruber and Mohr given the organ builder who came to fix the organ a special performance of their new song. He was so impressed that he memorized the words and sang them to people everywhere he went. Later, he taught the song to a traveling quartet, and in 1840 it was published.

By 1854 the hymn had become famous, but the name of the composer had been lost. A search was begun, and Franz Gruber was discovered, still an organist but an impoverished one. Fame did not do much for him; he was then 67, and he died nine years later.

The first translation of the hymn was made by Emily E. S. Elliot for the choir of St. Mark's Church in Brighton, England, but it is not the one used today. It was not until 1871 that the opening words "Silent night, holy night" first appeared in print, in The Sunday School Hymnal.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the great Austrian-American contralto, recorded the song in the early 1900s, but it did not reach the height of its popularity until Bing Crosby sang it in the movie The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

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