A church organist and a Roman Catholic priest combined to compose one of the world’s most beloved Christmas carols in 1818.
Father Joseph Mohr wrote the original six-verse poem two years earlier while assigned to a Mariapfarr, Austria church not far from his grandfather’s home. Just what inspired the poem is lost to time, but Father Mohr carried it with him when transferred to Oberndorf in 1817.
One year later, the priest visited an Arnsdorf teacher and musician named Franz Xavier Gruber whom he’d befriended and showed him the poem. Despite Gruber being an organist, Mohr asked him to write the music for guitar, for use in that Christmas’s Midnight Mass. Several accounts describe the priest as wanting a brand new Christmas carol in hand with his personal love for the guitar.
The two men performed the new carol from the St. Nicholas Church altar. If they thought that was that, they were proven wrong soon enough.
First, master organ builder Karl Mauracher, who’d traveled to St. Nicholas Church numerous times to perform maintenance on the church’s organ, landed a copy of the carol and took it home to the Ziller Valley—where two traveling folk singing families, the Strassers (who changed a few melodic notes and fashioned the version known forever since) and the Reiner Family, added the carol to their stage repertoires.
Then, the Reiner Family premiered the carol in the United States in 1839, near the monument to Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church in New York. By the following decade, Hannover Court Opera singer Joseph Bletzacher disclosed the Mohr-Gruber carol had become widely known and loved throughout Prussia, with the Royal Cathedral Choir performing and popularising it and Prussian King Frederick William IV asking the choir to sing it for him personally during each Christmas season of his reign.
The carol’s fame continued to spread throughout Europe but Father Mohr died in the interim and few if any knew who Gruber was. Other accounts say Gruber contacted music authorities in Berlin identifying himself as the carol’s composer, but many assumed the melody to have originated with Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, perhaps depending upon whom you asked.
It would take until the 20th Century before Gruber is identified and affirmed as the music’s composer, thanks to a long-lost arrangement of the carol written in Mohr’s handwriting being authenticated—an arrangement that included the notation that he, Mohr, had written the words and Gruber the music. Gruber, in fact, had written several orchestral arrangements for the piece, and five such manuscripts would exist into the 20th Century.
A museum in Gruber’s memory will be made of his late-life home in Hallein. Gruber himself is buried outside the home, and the home itself includes several exhibits dealing with the history of his Christmas carol—including a guitar once belonging to Father Mohr.
Mohr is buried in Wagrain, an otherwise obscure Alpine ski resort, after a life that including donating his pastoral earnings to care for the elderly and education for children in the region. And his native Austria has long since declared his unlikely co-creation the Song Heard ‘Round the World.
Arguably, it’s the single most enduring Christmas carol in history: “Stille Nacht”—“Silent Night.”
TUNE IN TODAY . . .
Raymond Massey narrates a gentle telling of “Silent Night’s” story, one worthy of re-hearing every Christmas season.
Additional cast: Unidentified. Host: Tom Shirley. Music: Jack Miller. Director: Marx Loeb. Writer: Robert Sloan.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Texaco Star Theater with Fred Allen: Santa Claus Sits Down (NBC, 1940)—Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, John Brown, Minerva Pious, Jack Smart, Alan Reed, possibly Charles Cantor. Young Stuart Canin—the music prodigy who inadvertently launched the fabled Allen-Jack Benny feud a few years earlier—returns for an encore performance of “The Bee,” though the surviving recording will excise most of the evening’s music. Otherwise, Allen’s classic about disillusioned Santa going on strike gets another telling and a clever one. Writers: Fred Allen, Herman Wouk, Harry Tugend. (Note: Recording truncated.)
The Bob Hope Show: A Christmas Show from San Francisco (NBC, 1945)—Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna, Frances Langford, Trudy Erwin. Actor and World War II flying ace Wayne Morris joins the Christmas fun, though Bob may not have as much fun buying a new a house as he thinks. Writers: Possibly Jack Douglas, Hal Block, Larry Marks.
Duffy’s Tavern: The Raffle (NBC, 1946)—Ed Gardner, Joan Bennett, Sandra Gould, Charles Cantor, Eddie Green. Archie wants film star Bennett (“What’s she got that Mrs. Duffy ain’t got? Well, take a look at Mrs. Duffy—are ya lookin’? Well, whatcha don’t see, Joan Bennett’s got”) to help him auction off a tiara for the needy—and neither they nor the winner are quite prepared. Business as usual in radio’s favourite Lower East Side dive. Writers: Ed Gardner, Bob Schiller, unknown others.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Getting a Christmas Tree in the Mountains (NBC, 1949)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Robert North, Elliott Lewis, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Walter Tetley. Their mayor hasn’t yet put up the annual town Christmas tree, so Alice dragoons an eager Willie and a reluctant Phil and Remley into getting it from the mountains themselves—which may be her first mistake. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Tax Refund (NBC, 1953)—Jim & Marian Jordan. The Squire of 79 Wistful Vista expects his angry calls to City Hall to pay off at last with a refund of his property tax overpayment—until the check in the mail gets blown out of the windbag’s hand in a nasty wind, which kind of figures. Writers: Phil Leslie, Ralph Goodman.
The Whistler: Windfall (CBS, 1944)—Bill Forman (The Whistler); unidentified cast. Deep into San Francisco’s bookies when his wealthy cousin is killed in a road accident, nervous young gambler Robert Bradley becomes his dying uncle’s only heir. The usual twisted twists, deftly arrayed. Writer: Harold Swanton.
Romance: One Way Passage (CBS, 1945)—Humphrey Bogart, Joan Bennett. Radio adaptation of the William Powell-Kay Francis film (1932): A terminally ill woman and an escaped murderer sentenced to death fall into an unlikely romance—with each not knowing the other’s fatal secret. One of the more effective condensations during this show’s only period in which it casts Hollywood stars . . . and one of Bogart’s best radio appearances. Writer: Jean Holloway, adapting the screenplay by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson.
WORLD WAR II
Special Report: The Ardennes Withdrawal (BBC, 1944)—Robert Barr reports on a tactical withdrawal during the height of what was known as the Battle of the Bulge, a day after the infamous Malmedy Massacre in which eighty American prisoners of war were murdered by their Nazi captors.