A Wondrous Holiday Experience

A Broken Organ and a Snowstorm: The Humble Beginnings of Silent Night

The real story of Silent Night could be made into a happy-ending, made-for-TV movie.

It was Christmas Eve in 1818. The organist and priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf met.

The organ was broken. Still.

A snow storm enveloped the Austrian town. Still.

The organ repairman wouldn’t make it in time.

Still. Midnight Mass must go on!

What could they do? (The TV version would probably show them looking outside at the falling snow; then zoom in to their faces. A flash of understanding passes between the two — Joseph Mohr, the priest who would share the lyrics, and Franz Gruber, the organist who would compose the music.)

“Here. Use these lyrics I wrote two years ago,” says Mohr. 

Gruber looks up, taking the text: “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…  I’ll compose a melody and harmony–right now!”

And so, that Christmas Eve in St. Nicholas Church, the first singing of “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) rang out, accompanied not by an organ, but by a guitar.

Silent Night manuscript by Franz Gruber. (The Christmas song Stille Nacht, autograph (ca. 1860) by Franz Xaver Gruber (1787–1863). Photographed by de:Benutzer:Mezzofortist.)
Stille Nacht, autograph (ca. 1860) by Franz Xaver Gruber (1787–1863). (Photograph by de:Benutzer:Mezzofortist, via Wikimedia Commons)

While the exchange between Mohr and Gruber may not have happened exactly like that, we do know that, thanks to this organist and priest, Silent Night saved a Christmas Eve, and soon spread across Europe.

Two-hundred years later, this beloved carol is sung in over 300 hundred languages on Christmas Eve (often without organ) around the world.

Watch and listen

The video version above by our friends at From the Top pays homage to the classic piece with a new arrangement for four cellos by David Burndrett.

Download the audio clip and learn more about the young musicians: Max Bobby, Nathan Le, Noah Lee, and Esther Yu.

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