A Carol's Tale

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

Most songs don't keep. People sing them for a few years, then lose interest. New tunes replace the old in a continuous cycle and yesterday's lyrics are soon forgotten.
Even Christmas carols, the most traditional sounds in American music, have fairly shallow roots. The most popular Christmas song to date, "White Christmas," was composed by Irving Berlin in 1942. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" only dates back to 1962 and "Away in a Manger" is just over a century old.
Hardly anyone sings old Christmas classics like "La Bonna Novella" and "Nowell" any more. Both were big European hits in the 16th and 17th centuries. So was the German carol "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" ("Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming.")
Like a well-worn pair of boots left on the back porch, old songs lie forgotten until they lose their usefulness. Then they don't seem to fit any occasion.
One Christmas carol defies this musical evolution. It plays as well today as it did in 1818, and to ever larger audiences. Composed in a single day by two amateur musicians, it began its charmed career in Oberndorf, Austria on a Christmas Eve.
Oberndorf is a small farming community about 18 miles north of Salzburg. From the fields surrounding the village grow small grains, potatoes and sugar beets. At its heart rises the Church of St. Nicholas.
In 1818 this part of Europe was exhausted. The Napoleonic Wars had finally come to an end after claiming a heavy toll of lives and resources. This Christmas, at long last, would be a time of peace.
Church Choir Singing by Mary EvansAt the dawn of Christmas Eve the assistant pastor of St. Nicholas was perturbed, however. Mice had eaten away the bellows on the church organ which Joseph Mohr had planned to use for midnight mass. He would have to improvise an alternative.
Mohr sat down and wrote a poem. What was on his mind at the time no one knows, but a couple hours later he had six stanzas of what would become a world-famous Christmas carol.
The young cleric took his poem to a friend, Franz Xaver Gruber, who had a flair for music. Mohr asked him to compose a melody for two soloists, a choir, and a guitar accompaniment. By mid-afternoon the task was done and the choir in rehearsal.
When the villagers of Oberndorf filed into St. Nicholas for mass they had no idea what history was being made. Few would have guessed that the simple song they were about to hear would outlive them and their church.

Mohr and Gruber stood up solemnly in front of the congregation. Gruber held a guitar, and as he began strumming it they started to sing:

"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...."

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