Salzburgerland: Silent Night's 200th anniversary

Born in Salzburg 200 years ago, one of the world's most recognisable melodies has a rich and fascinating heritage to discover

By John Malathronas
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:42 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 16:06 BST
The Silent Night Museum in Oberndorf

It's snowing heavily but who's complaining? It's what I'd expect outside the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, where arguably the world's best-known carol was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818. My guide, Sepp, takes me up a defensive flood barrier to gaze upon the river Salzach making a U-turn, scenically wedging the town of Laufen on the other bank. He apologises for the steep climb. "The Salzach becomes ferocious in the spring when the ice melts in the Alps," he says. These floods are an important part of the story of Silent Night. In 1818, the organist at Oberndorf's St Nicholas Church was Franz Xaver Gruber, a teacher in a primary school at nearby Arnsdorf. A weaver's son, he'd done well to land the job. Meanwhile, the village priest was Joseph Mohr, the illegitimate son of an army musketeer and a Salzburg seamstress. With the organ out of action due to flood damage, Mohr was desperate to celebrate mass with something uplifting. He fished out a poem he'd written a few years back called Silent Night, and asked Gruber to compose a song based on it for guitar, two voices and choir. Gruber knocked up the melody in an afternoon and they both sang the new carol that evening with the congregation who had stayed on after mass.

There is no St Nicholas Church anymore. A catastrophic flood in 1899 saw to that; it was rebuilt on higher ground about 500 yards south. The Silent Night chapel with its larch ceiling and pink marble floor — "from the quarries over at Adnet", says Sepp — was later erected on the location of the old church, a tribute to the carol's first performance. A carved nativity scene graces the altar, while stained glass portraits of Gruber and Mohr adorn the windows.

Oberndorf's museum opposite explains how Silent Night with its message of hope was a balm to the soul of the barge community who made a living by transporting salt from the Salzburg mines, a diminishing trade by then. It illustrates how the carol was popularised by the Rainer Family Singers who toured Europe, while another singing family, the Strassers, took it all the way to the USA.

It also sports a soundproofed booth where you can sing karaoke to a variety of Silent Night covers: Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Shakin' Stevens, even Taylor Swift make appearances; the resulting mp3 file is sent to your email address. I choose the punk version by Die Toten Hosen and scream my lungs off.

In the footsteps of Silent Night
Given that both Mohr and Gruber were on the move throughout their lives, it's no surprise that there are 20-odd sites ready to bask in Silent Night's glory. However, only a handful present something beyond a commemorative plaque.

This town on the River Salzach is the birthplace of the Christmas carol. The song was performed for the first time at the Silent Night Chapel. Oberndorf's museum is two floors of exhibits and documentation dedicated to the Christmas song, too. 

Just north of Oberndorf, Gruber began his first teacher job in 1807 in Arnsdorf. Today's 'Gruberschule' lodges in the oldest school building in Austria; you can visit Gruber's digs inside only during class breaks.

Fifteen minutes from Salzburg by train, Gruber spent his final years as a choirmaster in the local church here. The town claims a decent museum displaying Gruber's scores and letters, personal effects as well as Mohr's guitar.

This was Mohr's final posting. Nowadays a wealthy ski resort one hour's drive from Salzburg, it was a poor mountain village when Mohr died there in 1848. His grave is a must-visit, as well as the museum, if only for the baroque mansion it's housed in.

Silent Night facts
There are no portraits of Mohr, so when sculptor Joseph Mühlbacher was commissioned to create a memorial in 1912, he had Mohr's skull exhumed and created the likeness seen today. The skull never made it back; it ended up embedded under the nativity scene in the Silent Night chapel.

Joseph Mohr was baptised in Salzburg Cathedral's medieval baptismal font. Since he was illegitimate and shunned by society, his godfather was Salzburg's executioner — and even he didn't appear at the ceremony but sent his housekeeper in his stead.

There are at least 18 full-length films about Silent Night, including a 2012 version produced by the Mormon church, four horror movies and a 1988 romance, Magdalene, in which Nastassja Kinski plays a fallen woman saved by Mohr.

Music does run in families: one of Franz Xaver Gruber's descendants is rapper Dame whose first album Straßenmusikant went to number one in the Austrian charts, and whose YouTube channel has 600,000 subscribers and 150 million views.

Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland at Frankenmuth, Michigan — 'The World's Largest Year-Round Christmas Store' — built a replica of the Silent Night Chapel in America with permission from Oberndorf's authorities.

Published in the Salzburgerland guide, distributed with the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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