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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe


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.

“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” was composed on Christmas Eve 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the village of Arnsdorf. The story goes that he used lyrics that had been written two years earlier in 1816 by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr. Mohr brought the words to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for that night's mass, after river flooding had possibly damaged the church organ. The church was St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. Mohr performed it with the composer at the Christmas Eve mass. Mohr played the guitar and he and Gruber sang together.

An organ builder named Karl Maraucher serviced the organ later at the church and he fell in love with the song. He left and went home with the composition, passing it on to two families of folk singers who then began to travel around with the piece, including it in their shows. There is evidence that one of the families, the Rainers, were singing it in Christmas of 1819 and they actually sang it in New York City in 1839. By the 1840s the song was well known and the melody was altered to make it the tune we know today.

But Mohr's name was forgotten because no one had seen the manuscript for many years. Gruber was known as the composer but lots of other people began to assume that the tune was composed by a famous composer like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. But in 1995, a manuscript was discovered in Mohr's handwriting and dated as c. 1820. It was confirmed that Mohr did indeed write the words in 1816 and it also shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818.

In Oberndorf today the two men are celebrated. There is the 'Silent Night Museum' and the 'Silent Night Chapel'. This chapel was built in 1937 after St Nicholas church eventually fell victim to regular floods in the late 19th century. Mohr and Gruber are commemorated in a stained glass window where they are depicted with a quill and guitar.

I have composed a trio version of 'Silent Night' : for 2 violins, solo singer (and an alternative violin part if there is no singer), and optional piano. It is an easy piece and lasts about 2 minutes. The first verse is for the violins and then the singer sings the tune in the second verse. It does work best with the piano part, but can be done without it. I decided to add a singer to make it more interesting as a performance piece in a concert or carol service. I changed the rhythm of the tune slightly to make it easier for early violin beginners. As I always do, I recorded the piece, and I was thrilled because my daughter Amy sings the solo part on the recording. I'm very grateful to her for doing that because she sings it so beautifully.


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