“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright…”
The words of “Silent Night,” written by a young Catholic priest in war-ravaged Austria in 1816, and their accompanying melody composed two years later by a schoolteacher, have resonated with people across cultures worldwide ever since they were first sung on Christmas Eve in a small church near Salzburg 200 years ago.
“‘Silent Night’ is considered the world’s most famous Christmas carol,” said Florida State University Assistant Professor Sarah Eyerly, a renowned musicologist at the College of Music and an expert on historical songs.
“It has been translated into at least 300 languages and dialects and set in hundreds of different styles of music, including heavy metal, punk, pop and gospel. Since the 1970s, artists have registered more than 730 different recordings at the U.S. Copyright Office. In 2011, UNESCO designated the song as an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
“Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild…”
Father Joseph Mohr wrote the song’s lyrics in the form of a poem amid a dark time, literally, for Austria.
The volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, one of the most powerful in recorded history, darkened the skies with ash, lowered temperatures, killed crops and caused famine throughout 1816, which became known as “The Year Without a Summer.”
Austrians also felt battered and exhausted from years of fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The 12-year conflict claimed many lives, damaged the economy, killed jobs and left the landscape littered with crumbled buildings and homes.
“The year of 1816, when Mohr composed the lyrics to ‘Silent Night,’ was a time of suffering for many Austrians,” Eyerly said. “Volcanic ash in the air had caused climate change across Europe. It rained virtually nonstop and even snowed during the summer. Crops failed. People were hungry and poor. Father Mohr faced a congregation of traumatized people, and I think his text for ‘Silent Night’ was intended to offer peace and comfort during great hardship.”
“Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
In 1818, Mohr asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, who lived near the river town Oberndorf, to compose music for the six-verse poem. It was a curious choice because Mohr was a talented musician himself — he played violin and guitar — and possessed the skills to produce a song. But Gruber tackled the task and delivered an ingenious musical style linked to the ebb and flow of life on the water.
“‘Silent Night’ has a rolling rhythm with two large beats split into three parts each, mirroring the sound of water like rolling waves,” Eyerly said. “That’s a very interesting parallel to the fact that a lot of people in Oberndorf worked on the river. The waterway was an important conduit for the salt trade in Austria. Gruber’s musical style seems to speak about that place and the livelihoods of the people.”
“Silent night, holy night. Shepherds quake at the sight…”
Gruber and Mohr premiered “Silent Night” at the parish of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf on Christmas Eve, 1818. They sang a duet as Mohr played the guitar, a significant choice, Eyerly said, because it was a regional folk instrument that would spotlight the song as a popular piece intended for the masses.
The two friends never could have imagined the mass appeal “Silent Night” would attain. The song has taken on a life of its own, Eyerly said, enchanting generations of people and transcending cultural, religious, political and far-flung geographic boundaries.
“‘Silent Night’ spread all over the world with the help of traveling singers and especially missionaries,” she said. “They brought it to very remote places like the subarctic community of Nain, Labrador, along the Canadian Coast, where German-Moravian missionaries worked with Inuit populations in the 19th century. The song has been translated into the Inuktitut language and sung there ever since.”
“Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.”
The song’s emotional power has been universal and constant in its 200-year history. Eyerly recalled the famous and startling Christmas Truce of World War I when enemy soldiers at the front lines of both the German and British sides laid down their weapons on Christmas Eve and started singing carols to each other, including “Silent Night.”
“It was a significant moment in the war,” Eyerly said, “because it united enemies.”
“Silent night, holy night. Son of God, love’s pure light…”
While “Silent Night” has become an iconic facet of Christianity and more specifically, a familiar part of Christmas Eve services illuminated only by flickering candlelight, Eyerly said the song’s ubiquitous presence during the holiday season has created indelible memories for virtually everyone.
“‘Silent Night’ was always a really important part of services on Christmas Eve in churches around the world, and many people have shared that experience,” she said. “But the song also reminds us of a universal sense of grace and peace that transcends Christian tradition and unites people across cultures and faith traditions.”
“Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace…”
Austria has planned myriad celebrations in its “Silent Night Villages” in December to commemorate the song’s 200th anniversary and honor its favorite sons, Gruber and Mohr. Eyerly said the festivities will draw thousands of people from around the world, mainly to honor the fundamental message of “Silent Night.”
“The song carries a sense of peace,” she said, “a feeling that it is possible for all people to live together on this planet, peacefully, under divine providence.”
Contact Assistant Professor Eyerly for interviews at [email protected].