The world was in turmoil. The Napoleonic Wars had wreaked havoc all over Europe, and a very simple Christmas carol was about to come into the world and bring much-needed comfort to a suffering population.
I can just imagine how the congregation felt after hearing Silent Night, Holy NIght for the first time on December 24, 1818. I imagine it is exactly the feeling of peace and serenity that the priest Joseph Mohr and the organist Franz Gruber had hoped to instill in their flock that night. The story goes that on the morning of December 24, 1818, the organ of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a little village 20 km north of Salzburg, was broken. Something had to be done to make sure that there was music that Christmas Eve. Joseph Mohr had an idea. Two years earlier in 1816, he had written a poem Stille Nacht. As the Napoleonic Wars had ended, leaving suffering and upheaval in its wake, the poem Stille Nacht was a call for peace, strength and faith in those trying times. Due to a depression in the area’s lucrative salt trade and border shifts separating Oberndorf from its town center, Oberndorf was in a particular struggle after the end of the wars in 1815. Mohr hoped a song set to the calming words of his poem could help.
Perhaps the organ was indeed broken on Christmas Eve in 1818, or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps Joseph Mohr needed an excuse to share a very intimate idea with the parishioners of St. Nicholas church, or perhaps he made a clear decision not to use the organ that evening. For indeed, the organ, the king of instruments, could not accompany the words to his heart-felt poem that spoke with the devotion and transparency of a tender prayer. The unadorned sound of a single stringed instrument was needed. On the morning of December 24, 1818, Mohr went to Franz Gruber, who was also a schoolteacher in a neighboring village, and asked him to write a melody for his poem Stille Nacht. Mohr, who was musically inclined, asked Gruber to write a simple melody for 2 solo voices, choir and guitar accompaniment. That evening, Mohr and Gruber sang the 2 solos with the choir, and Mohr played the guitar. The simplicity of this hauntingly beautiful melody has paved its way into all our hearts and is etched in our memories. It should not be a surprise that this beloved Christmas carol made its way around the world by 1839, only 21 years after its first performance.
On December 23, Hartmut and I, as always, ended our annual Christmas candle-lighting concert in Vienna with Stille Nacht. I sang the first 3 verses alone with Hartmut’s violin accompaniment, and then, the audience joined us in a repeat of the first verse. I love getting my audiences to sing with me. Seeing the audience with all of their lit candles and hearing them sing Stille Nacht with me is quite something. These moments are fleeting and yet treasured memories. Hartmut and I know that our audience left our concert that evening filled with feelings of peace, comfort and strength to face the world which now, as in 1815, appears to hold uncertainties, struggles and terror. Hopefully, those people who were with us on the 23rd will bring the feelings of peace they experienced that evening with them into the New Year.
Music is a powerful force. As the year 2015 comes to a close, we get to infuse the year 2016 with new ideas, hopes and inspiration. How will your music create a positive shift in the world this year?
NOTE: On Friday, December 23, 2016 at 7:30 pm, The Diva and the Fiddler will perform their annual Christmas concert again at Kirche St. Anna in Vienna. Please join us. To learn more, click the link below: