The Music Plays On — Gruber Silent Night

Autograph score 1860

Franz Xaver Gruber was a school teacher, church organist and composer who lived in the small Austrian village of Arnsdorf, just twelve miles north of Salzburg. Even today, calling Arnsdorf a village is a stretch. In fact, the two largest buildings are still the church and school where Gruber lived and worked, and where he probably wrote one of the most famous tunes ever written.

But how did this carol from the Austrian hinterlands achieve such worldwide recognition, becoming the most translated and sung carol in the world? Part of it certainly has to do with its simplicity and direct message, but a now forgotten Austrian folk singing family has to be given its due.

To this day, the Zillertal Valley in the Tirol region of Austrian prides itself in maintaining the folk singing traditions that have been in this alpine region for centuries. Singing in thirds or sixths (think Beach Boys, bluegrass, and yodeling) is a common trait throughout the Alps. The Rainer Singers were the Trapp Family Singers of the 19th century and their fame took them around the world. For their holiday show, they always would sing Stille Nacht. In fact, the Rainer Singers are still around…

In 1816, Gruber took on the responsibility of organist and choirmaster of the St. Nicholas Church in the neighboring village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg.

St. Nicholas Church. After a series of floods in the 1890’s, the church was eventually demolished and moved to the center of town.

On Christmas Eve, 1818, Joseph Mohr, a catholic priest at St. Nicholas, showed Gruber a six-stanza poem, Stille Nacht that he had written in 1816 and asked Gruber if he could set it to music. Gruber returned the following day with the melody and for Christmas Mass, Mohr and Gruber sang in harmony, with Gruber playing the guitar as the organ had been damaged in a series of floods. The choir repeated the final two lines of each stanza. This very faithful recording uses Joseph Mohr’s guitar. For the German lyrics, please go to the end of this blog.

Gruber would later make many versions of Stille Nacht including this beautiful version he created while working in the city Hallein.

Here is the original German lyrics with an English transliteration.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund‘.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Die der Welt Heil gebracht,
Aus des Himmels goldenen Höh‘n
Uns der Gnaden Fülle lässt seh‘n
Jesus, in Menschengestalt,
Jesus, in Menschengestalt

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Wo sich heute alle Macht
Väterlicher Liebe ergoss
Und als Bruder huldvoll umschloss.
Jesus, die Völker der Welt,
Jesus, die Völker der Welt.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Lange schon uns bedacht,
Als der Herr vom Grimme befreit,
In der Väter urgrauer Zeit
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß,
Aller Welt Schonung verhieß.

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von ferne und nah:
Christus, der Retter, ist da!
Christus, der Retter ist da!

Silent night! Holy night!
All are sleeping, alone and awake
Only the intimate holy pair,
Lovely boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, O how he laughs
Love from your divine mouth,
Then it hits us — the hour of salvation.
Jesus at your birth!
Jesus at your birth!

Silent night! Holy night!
Which brought salvation to the world,
From Heaven’s golden heights,
Mercy’s abundance was made visible to us:
Jesus in human form,
Jesus in human form.

Silent night! Holy night!
Where on this day all power
of fatherly love poured forth
And like a brother lovingly embraced
Jesus the peoples of the world,
Jesus the peoples of the world.

Silent night! Holy night!
Already long ago planned for us,
When the Lord frees from wrath
Since the beginning of ancient times
A salvation promised for the whole world.
A salvation promised for the whole world.

Silent night! Holy night!
To shepherds it was first made known
By the angel, Alleluia;
Sounding forth loudly far and near:
Jesus the Savior is here!
Jesus the Savior is here!

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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