Silent Night – The Composition, The Story of WWI, and The Choir
Silent Night is one of my favorite Christmas Carols. I would like to review some of the stories behind this 202 years old popular Christmas music.
“Silent Night” (German: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) is a popular Christmas Carol. The lyrics were written by Joseph Mohr in Salzburg, Austria. The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf.
Before Christmas Eve, Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. The first performance of the carol was on December 24, 1818, in the Christmas Eve mass.
Over the years, because the original manuscript had been lost, Mohr’s name was forgotten and although Gruber was known to be the composer, many people assumed the melody was composed by a famous composer, and it was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers as c. 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting. (Source)
The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914 by Naina Bajekal
In 1914, just a few months into a war, Pope Benedict XV, who took office that September, had originally called for a Christmas truce, an idea that was officially rejected. Yet it seems the sheer misery of daily life in the cold, wet, dull trenches was enough to motivate troops to initiate the truce on their own…
It’s hard to pin down exactly what happened. A huge range of differing oral accounts, diary entries and letters home from those who took part make it virtually impossible to speak of a “typical” Christmas truce as it took place across the Western front… Nevertheless, some two-thirds of troops — about 100,000 people — are believed to have participated in the legendary truce…
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, as Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described it in even greater detail:
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons, and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.
I chose this arrangement of Silent Night performed by the Winchester Cathedral Choir on December 27, 2010