The well-known Christmas Carol, "Silent Night," has not lost any of its allure for millions of people around the globe since it was first sung in 1818. Having lived in Austria 38 years, I have had the opportunity to gather much information about this most popular piece of music ever produced. Some of the details are still in dispute, but there is general agreement among historians on the following. 

The tune you should be hearing in the background is based on the original scores written by Franz Gruber. If it isn't playing, click here.

Ralph V. Harvey




Nearly everyone knows that a hungry church mouse gnawed a hole in the bellows of the old church organ in Oberndorf and that in just a few hours time, Josef Mohr and his good friend Franz Gruber produced what would become the most popular song in the world! 


This makes for a terrific story, but there is no documentation for the role of the mouse. We do know that according to what Gruber called the "authentic story" (written 36 years later!), the organ was in a sad state of repair and that the church had no money to remedy the situation. It is of course very possible that a hungry mouse actually did help to incur the damage to the organ, so I see no valid reason to call this a falsification. 


Nor was Silent Night an entirely spontaneous production. Josef Mohr wrote the six verses of Silent Night in 1816 while serving the church of Mariapfarr, two years before the musical scores were penned. Franz Gruber had already written musical compositions for various occasions and this was simply another task. Neither Mohr nor Gruber could possibly have perceived that their co-production would someday make them famous. Their main concern was that the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass not be entirely destitute of music. 


The guitar was seen as a worldly instrument in those days, and not fit for use in a church. As organist, Gruber was probably not very excited about composing a piece for Mohr's guitar. The men were perhaps more concerned about how the people would receive the implementation of this instrument than how they would like the new song.




Josef Mohr, who wrote the text to Silent Night, was born on December 11, 1792. He was the third illegitimate child born to a 41-year-old, unmarried seamstress, Anna Schoiber. His father was Josef Franz Mohr, a soldier from Stranach near Mariapfarr, who had deserted from the army on June 21 of that year. Mohr's mother was required to fill out an official "Fornication Protocol" after which the Executioner of Salzburg, Josef Wohlmut, served as godfather at his Christening service. 


Mohr began school and somehow, the Director of the Cathedral Choir in Salzburg, Johan Nepomuk Hiernle, heard Mohr's clear tenor voice. He inquired about him and took the lad under his wing. Mohr soon became one of his favorite Choir Boys in the University Choir. He later sang in the St. Peter's Cathedral Choir in Salzburg. At sixteen, he began musical studies in the Benedictine Monastery of Kremsmünster. After returning to Salzburg, Mohr enrolled in a seminary to study for the priesthood. Upon completion of his studies, there was some debate about Mohr's qualifications for a holy office, but probably with some influence from Hiernle, he was ordained on August 3, 1815. On August 22, Mohr was appointed as assistant to the priest (Nessler) in his home town of Mariapfarr. 


Circumstances surrounding his appointment as priest in Oberndorf are quite interesting. Until 1816, Oberndorf was part of the Bavarian town of Laufen, separated only by the Salzach River. In this year however, an agreement between Austria and Bavaria made the river the border and Oberndorf, which means "The upper village", became an independent town. The citizens of Laufen were sorry to lose their lovely church with its rococo architecture, which was located on the opposite side of the river. But the people of Oberndorf were apparently not so attached to it. In 1906, ninety years after Silent Night was written, the citizens of Oberndorf decided to tear down the church of the now famous song's origin rather than make needed repairs. Interestingly, the church in Oberndorf was named after St. Nicholas! 


Official documents of the Catholic Church report that the appointment of Josef Mohr to the new vacancy in Oberndorf was seriously questioned by the Diocese's Provisor Noestler. His comments are recorded as follows: 

"The curate priest Mohr acts immaturely, walking through the streets with a long tobacco pipe, his pouch at his side. Similarly to the ship boys, he rides the river at flood stage, gambles, drinks and above all, he sings unedifying songs." 


The reference to gambling ("spielen") probably refers to a card game with stakes, still popular in Austrian taverns. Oberndorf was a river port town. Local ships transported salt from mines in Hallein to Linz, where it was sold on public markets. The "ship boys" were known to be a rowdy bunch. It was apparently the citizens of Oberndorf who insisted upon having Mohr as their priest! 


After his tenure in Oberndorf, Mohr served several churches in the province of Salzburg. He served longest in Wagrain, from 1837 until his death in 1848.



Gruber was born into a weaver's family on November 25, 1787. His birthplace was the small town of Hochburg, near Braunau, where Adolf Hitler was born. Franz Gruber's birth house was torn down as recently as 1976, but Hitler's birth house still stands. 

Franz's father wanted him to learn the weaver's trade, but a teacher who recognized other outstanding gifts in his student, persuaded the father to allow Franz to pursue a teaching career. Franz Gruber's marital experiences were unusual to say the least. Gruber's first wife was the widow of his teaching predecessor and she had been married once before that. After she died, Gruber married a former student and when she died, he married a third time! 


Franz Gruber accepted a teaching position in Arndorf in 1807. In 1816, shortly before the 24-year-old Mohr arrived as curate priest, Gruber accepted a position as church organist in nearby Oberndorf. Some sources claim that his decision was with hopes of obtaining a teaching position in Oberndorf while others believe that Gruber just wanted to escape military service. Suffice it to say that Gruber was organist from 1816 until 1827. For reasons unknown to us, Gruber was replaced as organist in 1827 after which he accepted a teaching position in Berndorf. On July 2, 1835, he moved to Hallein to become church organist. He was still in Hallein 18 years later, when he was discovered as composer of the now famous carol, Silent Night. Few people realize that Franz Xaver Gruber is responsible for at least 90 other musical compositions. He died in Hallein in 1863.





After realizing that the defective church organ would be unusable for the midnight mass, Mohr took his two-year-old Christmas poem to the home of his friend, Franz Gruber. Gruber was church organist and a school teacher in nearby Arnsdorf. Within a few hours, Gruber had set the composition to music for two solo voices and a choir. Mohr sang tenor and Gruber bass, while the church choir joined in on the refrain. Musical accompaniment was provided by Mohr's guitar. Called "a plucking violin", the guitar was considered to be a worldly instrument, used mainly in taverns. According to Gruber, the townspeople received the new song with enthusiasm. 


The original carol had six verses, but only verses 1, 2 and 6 are generally known. Experts agree that the 3rd verse is actually the most beautiful (from German): 

"Silent Night, Holy Night, which brought the world salvation, from the heights of Heaven, the fullness of grace can be witnessed in the form of a man."



The organ builder, Carl Mauracher, made temporary repairs to the old organ in the spring of 1819 and built a new organ in 1825. On one of his visits, he discovered the text and music of Silent Night (then called "Christmas Song") and took it back to Tyrol with him. Zillertal folk music groups began singing it in Alpine villages and before long, the song was known in Munich and other cities. The Tirolean Strasser Family, which traveled around Europe singing and selling gloves of their own manufacture, sang the song at a "Tyrolean Evening" in Leipzig. A Leipzig newspaper, "Tagesblatt" requested them to return to the city the following year and sing the carol at a Christmas concert. The concert took place on December 15, 1832. Following this appearance, the Friese Publishing Company of Dresden and Leipzig published the carol in a collection entitled, "Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs of the Strasser Family." The carol was described as a "Tyrolean folk song of questionable origin." From that time on, the carol began its ascent to fame, conquering the hearts of people everywhere. 


In 1853, the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, spotted Silent Night in a song book with the comment, "Composer unknown". Suspecting that the carol came from Michael Hayden, he requested the Concert Master of The Royal Chapel of Berlin, to find the composer of this music. The Concert Master began earnest inquiries about the carol's origin by writing to authorities in Salzburg and Vienna. In 1854, church researchers were able to trace the song to Franz Gruber. Gruber, now 67, was organist in the church of Hallein near Salzburg. No one was more surprised than Gruber to receive a request from none less than the King of Prussia! He was asked to give details about the origin of Silent Night. Gruber sent a letter to Berlin, giving "authentic information" about the origin of the music and short biographies of the composers. From his letter, which rests in city archives, we know that Mohr died as a vicar on December 4, 1848 in Wagrain. He was so poor, that the town had to pay his funeral expenses. 


Gruber was pressured by the King of Prussia to produce the original scores of Silent Night. Because he could not find these, he recomposed the song from memory. Besides this one, six other copies written by Gruber have been found. Some of them predate his "original authentic" version and have differing melodies. 


The Silent Night Historical Society, based in Salzburg, has collected a wealth of information on this subject including bizarre fiction and proven facts. One particularly stubborn story declared Mohr to be the sole author of Silent Night. It claimed that Gruber saw his chance for personal fame or profit after the song had become popular and Mohr was no longer alive to tell the truth. 


A recently discovered authentic copy of Silent Night by Josef Mohr himself astounded the music world and disproves this claim. The existence of this document was not known until a private person in Munich presented it to the Carolinum Augusteum Museum in Salzburg on December 8th, 1995. According to Mohr, the six verses of the "Christmas Song" as it was then called, were written by himself in 1816. Mohr clearly gives Gruber credit for the melody. Mohr's copy was made in 1825 (about the same time the song was discovered by the organ repairman) and is apparently closer to the original than any of Gruber's copies. It was even written for two voices with guitar accompaniment, as was the original. 


It took years for the story of the song's origin to catch up to the now famous Christmas carol. By this time people all over the world were singing different tunes and texts. A German opera singer, Josef Bletzacher, of Hannover, discovered a copy of the carol in a school house while visiting the New York World's Fair in 1873. It was titled, "Choral of Salzburg". As late as 1900, the song was still known as a "Protestant Folk Song" in Norway!



The town of Wagrain, where Josef Mohr served as vicar until his death in 1848, decided in 1912 to have a bust made of their now famous priest. Since no picture of the composer existed, Mohr's body was dug up from the cemetery in Wagrain. After removing the scull, the body was reburied vertically in his old grave! The scull spent the next quarter of a century collecting dust! It was finally cemented into the wall of a memorial chapel, which was built on the site of the old St. Nicholas Church in 1937. The original church was torn down in 1906. 


The famous Christmas carol was given a different text by the Nazis in 1942 and used as an instrument of propaganda in radio broadcasts. Nevertheless, it was reported during World War I, that soldiers on both side of the conflict ceased fighting on Christmas Eve to sing this carol together! 


Silent Night has not lost any of its allure for millions of people around the globe. It is not only the most popular German Christmas Carol, but also the most popular piece of music ever produced! It has been translated into at least 178 languages and there are 14 differing Latin versions of the song! Scores of books, dramas and films have been devoted to the origin of this song. 

Josef Mohr's guitar, which was used to accompany the carol in 1818, can still be seen in the Hallein Museum near Salzburg.

Below are photos of the Silent Night Memorial Chapel on the site where the Nicholas Church once stood and Mohr's guitar, which can be seen in the "Stille Nacht" Museum of Salzburg.  


Ralph Harvey

November, 2003