Could there be a song that is universally known to all Christians and many more of other denominations? It is said that the Advent classic, Silent Night, is sung in 52 languages. It was composed 200 years ago this coming Christmas. Here is the story of how it all began.
Consider the catastrophe. A performance is expected, everything is set, anticipation runs high and then your organ breaks down on Christmas Eve. A mouse nibbling the bellows was suspected. One might consider some hopeful tinkering, but all is to no avail and there are worshippers waiting to give praise. What is to be done? Most church members would fall on to their knees and ask for guidance. This was presumably undertaken and in a flash guidance came with an authoritative ring and not without a portion of worldly logic. You call in the local maestro and his buddy and get them to compose something suitable for two solo voices and choir with a guitar accompaniment.
Thus the birth of a legend! A legend that gave us a song so obviously misnamed because Silent Night made an enormous noise in the music world and is still peaking to crescendo after crescendo as we enter into that special period of contemplation leading up to Christmas. In fact, there is hardly a night around Christmas that is not made sublime with amateur and professional renderings of this Advent classic. Even White Christmas with the added charm of Bing Crosby, and surely number two in the charts, is not likely to last as long.
Exactly 200 year ago, in 1818, one Joseph Mohr, a lay-priest in Oberndorf near Salzburg in Austria, wrote the text. He dropped in on his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, on December 24, mind, and asked him to write the melody and all the rest that goes into the making of a piece of music. Gruber was a teacher and performed the duties of cantor and organist at the church in Oberndorf. But he still managed deliver the same day, displaying the sort of spontaneous, one-off brand of inspiration that is sent straight from heaven to obey a command of great urgency.
Delivered and accepted, the song was premièred at the Church of St Nikolaus in Oberndorf and was immediately well received by the congregation. Mohr sang tenor and provided the guitar accompaniment. Gruber sang bass and the congregation rendered the recurring final two verses in each stanza.
Silent Night has six haunting stanzas and the melody is, of course, the perfect blend of simple magic and an appropriately gentle tone rising, ever so evenly, to a breast-swelling exaltation in performance. A cinch, in fact! Verity observed, the stuff that hits are made of.
The immediate region succumbed first to the song's charm, then Tyrol in the west of Austria, followed by Germany and the rest of the world.
Due to flooding in 1906, almost a century later, the original church of St Nikolaus was moved to another site and a plaque was hung in honour of the two, now famous, musical friends. In 1937 the present memorial chapel was built on the site of the old church and is, of course, a pilgrimage destination for Silent Night lovers from all over the world, including the international skiing crowd who realize that only fanatics ski deep into the night on Christmas Eve.
The chapel is a small, octagonal edifice with a capacity of perhaps forty persons. There are stained-glass windows depicting the two gents, Mohr and Gruber and Oberndorf. Nearby Arnsdorf, where Gruber lived, is also depicted. Adjacent to the chapel is a beautifully proportioned 16th century water tower. The Oberndorf Tourist Office is also located there at the Stille-Nacht-Platz (German for Silent Night Square).The Tourist Office also incorporates a museum containing an exhibition of all things relating to the Silent Night story and further exhibitions of local cultural, traditional and folklore interest. There is naturally a Christmas Market. One will buy things to hang on a Christmas tree, scoff hot sweet chestnuts and nibble at heart-shaped Lebkuchen, which is a traditional gingerbread biscuit mixed with spices. Men will drink cold beer in uncommonly cold surroundings.
At 5 p.m. every December 24, the Silent Night Memorial Celebration, which lasts about an hour, is held outside the chapel. There will be zither music and Glühwein (hot punch) for those who need defrosting. The famous song is naturally performed in its original form but there is also music rendered by a gloriously mournful horn quintet, large-bore artillery (a blunderbuss salvo, to be exact) is fired, words of reverence and prayer are offered and the simultaneous ringing of the bells of several churches in the area will permeate your whole being. Everyone stands around wearing ear-warmers, gloves and heavy coats; and stuff underneath, of course. Breath rises visibly in the icy air and one then dives into the bustling Stille Nacht Cafe for a jolly, festive revival of a more secular sort.
One might try the Sonderpostamt (Special Post Office) at the Tourist Office to send your Christmas cards stamped with a special seal, which is possibly more reliable than addressing one's wishes to the North Pole. The town's Musikkapelle, a distinctly brassy brass band, will be blowing high notes at regular intervals and will offer concerts every Saturday and Sunday during Advent leading up to Christmas.
The celebration has a very traditional approach, which somehow adds to the bustle and excitement of that last-minute feeling that gets you all hot and bothered and secretly pleased. One's cheeks will become rosy, there will be snowflakes on your eyelashes and you will be stamping your moon-booted feet all the while anticipating a really hearty dinner at a tavern that incorporates a restaurant of some quality. Look for somewhere with an open fireplace full of burning logs. Pork may be otherwise somewhat out of fashion, but not in Austria. Spoil yourself and ask for Schweinebraten (roast pork). It will probably come with dumplings and sauerkraut, which is an acquired taste but terrific once you get used to it.
And then there's that song! 'Taaaa diddy taaaa' you will go as you sit and eat. There will be warmth and good cheer everywhere and perhaps even a little tear in remembrance of the New Year past, and then bright anticipation of the New Year to come. This is how the world is meant to be!
Oberndorf is on the Austrian border to Germany, about a half-hour drive from the city of Salzburg within the province of the same name. There is plenty of public transport in the area. The nearest airports are at Salzburg and Munich. Local hotels are available but early booking is advised. The city of Salzburg is a good bet for spontaneous bookings. The Stille-Nacht.info site is also in English and offers a great deal of useful information.