It’s a song that experts say transcends generations, cultures, even religion. “Silent Night” — first performed in a small Austrian church over 200 years has not only stood the test of time, but found its own place in history.
It is structured simply, easy to record, has been translated into over 300 languages and bridges both secular and non-secular Christmas music. But perhaps just as important is the song’s original message of hope and peace — one that still resonates today.
The poem that would become “Silent Night,” was written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, and came to life amid regional conflict, natural disaster and — yes, even 200 years ago — ‘climate change.’
Mohr, an assistant priest in his early 20s, wrote the poem in the Austrian village of Mariapfarr. The region was reeling from the aftereffects of the Napoleonic Wars and the reorganization of Europe that followed. The conflict had decimated cities and the local economy, leaving countless people in debt.
Adding to the gloom was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which blasted enough ash and debris into the air to darken much of the planet. Historians say the Earth cooled by at least a half-degree Celsius, contributing to crop failure and famine in some parts of the world, as well as epidemics in Europe. It rained constantly, and even snowed during the summer of 1816.
On Christmas eve 1818 the Mariapfarr church organ was discovered as broken, with no avenues to fix it until the snow melted away in spring. Joseph, a determined individual, was not disheartened and took steps to ensure that the music prevailed during Christmas. Collaborating with Franz Gruber, the church organist they found an alternative instrument by way of the guitar and composed a melody for the earlier written poem. The two men subsequently performed the carol at a Christmas mass beautifully.
Its place in history would be cemented in 1914, when the song figured in a Christmas Eve truce on the Western Front in WW1. While details of how the truce started remain murky, it apparently began with German soldiers singing “Silent Night,” their voices rising over the trenches. Some accounts say the English sang along, while others say they were not as familiar with the tune and responded instead with other carols. Regardless, the singing seemed to break the ice and led to a Christmas cease-fire.
The song has since become a staple on holiday albums, with renditions by Bing Crosby, Boyz II Men, Al Green, Michael Bublé, Kelly Clarkson — you name it. It has appeared in numerous movies, on favourite Christmas song lists and is sung by millions every year.
As we all move into another Christmas season, lets all sing it again, and get behind its eternal message of peace, a message that the whole world needs to hear.
From the elocal desk