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Silent Night

posted Dec 24, 2010, 10:43 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jul 2, 2015, 2:28 PM ]
This “Song Heard 'Round the World” began in 1818 at the Austrian Church of St. Nicholas.  Although the reason for its composition has never been historically verified, the popular theory is that mice ate through the organ bellows, making it unplayable, which caused assistant pastor Joseph Mohr and music teacher Franz Gruber to create an easy tune for the congregation to sing with only guitar accompaniment.  As the choir first sang it at Midnight Mass, they couldn't imagine the impact this simple composition would have.

True or not, it really was an organ repairman who took the song's manuscript and shared it with two traveling families of folk singers, similar to the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame.  One of these families gave the song its American premier in 1839 just a few miles from here outside Manhattan's Trinity Church.

On Christmas Eve, 1914, German troops on the muddy battlefields of Flanders put up small Christmas trees lit by candles and began to sing it.  And though the words were unfamiliar to the British and French troops, the tune was not.  Both sides sang simultaneously in their own language as they put up signs stating “You No Fight, We No Fight.”  The spontaneous truce led to fraternizing soldiers burying each others dead; sharing rations and gifts; and playing soccer and football.  Unfortunately, generals soon commanded an end to the impromptu cease-fire.

Silent Night has been translated into over 44 languages, and recorded by well over 300 artists, including versions in Irish by Enya and Italian by Andrea Bocelli.  Simon and Garfunkel recorded an ironic interpretation in which a depressing radio news report is overheard in the background.  My favorites are Barbra Streisand and Mannheim Steamroller.  In 2009, Susan Boyle's reached #5 on the US Adult Contemporary billboard chart.  Two new tracks out in 2010 are by Shelby Lynne and Annie Lennox. 

But no celebrity sang its world premiere.  Its beginnings were as humble as the event it describes.  Yet its powerful message of peace has crossed borders and conquered the hearts of people everywhere for almost 200 years.