December 13, 2011 Volume 4, Issue 16
. . . an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Gregor Thuswaldner
I grew up in Salzburg, Austria. Known today mostly for its genius loci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world renowned Salzburg Festival (one of the most important music and theater festivals in Europe), and the 1965 classic film, “The Sound of Music,” Salzburg is a beautiful city. But it has not always been a peaceful one.
In fact, in the early 1800s, Salzburg was not the tourist magnet it became towards the end of the 19th century. Napoleon had ravaged Europe and almost overnight, century-old territories were merged with new ones. For about a millennium, prince archbishops—who had become wealthy and influential due to gold and salt found in the Alps—governed Salzburg with charity. By 1806, however, because of the Napoleonic wars, the church state of Salzburg had lost its independence and came under the rule of Austria. In the process, Salzburg’s citizens lost their belongings, and security, when French and Bavarian soldiers looted their homes.
By 1816, the people of Salzburg had become extremely poor and disillusioned. And in that same year, a young man named Joseph Mohr struggled along side his people. Mohr had been branded an outsider by birth, the first of four illegitimate children. His godfather had been Salzburg’s last executioner, another stigma on Joseph’s life, and the young man found it difficult to fit in. But a choir director for Salzburg’s Dome Cathedral saw in Joseph not the stigma but the potential, and eventually helped his protégée become a priest.
As he witnessed the poverty and despair of his townspeople, Joseph felt compelled to respond. He picked up a pen and began to imagine a different place, a quiet, holy time when his city would again know peace and calm. The words of his poem came no doubt from his own spiritual longings and from the hope he clung to as he moved from parish to parish. Yet Mohr’s poem transcended his own experiences and focused on a greater story, that of the Christ, the savior who was born into poverty. It was a notion Mohr could relate to in more than one way.
Two years later in 1818 after Mohr had been ordained, he arrived in Oberndorf, a small town just 13 miles north of Salzburg. There he met a teacher and church organist named Franz Xaver Gruber. It wasn’t long before Joseph gave his poem to Gruber, asking that he put it to music so as to inspire their people anew. “Stille Nacht” was first sung on Christmas Eve in Oberndorf’s Church of St Nicholas.
Many stories have been created about the origin of “Silent Night,” the most famous contending that Gruber’s organ was not working and he had to play the newly composed Christmas carol on his guitar. But Mohr had asked Gruber to compose the music with a guitar in mind. And soon after, the chords and lyrics merged into a song that now resonates around the world every Christmas.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols dates back to the fourth century. Unlike today, though, when U.S. retailers begin playing familiar carols and songs even before Thanksgiving to entice new shoppers, celebrating the incarnation in song was once of utmost theological importance. The Church saw a need to rebuke heretical teachings that questioned the notion that God became man in a baby named Jesus. And in many ways, Nat King Cole’s 1961 recording of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” or Eartha Kitt’s 1953 song “Santa Baby” have replaced those explicitly religious Christmas carols that sing of the actual event behind the commercialized festivities, that is, Christ’s birth.
But “Silent Night”—which unapologetically proclaims the Lord’s birth—remains one of the world’s most beloved Christmas carols, played in shops and radios as much as churches and homes. Why? Perhaps because Mohr captured that notion we all long for in a world that can still seem dark and difficult: that all would indeed be calm and bright “with the dawn of redeeming grace.”
Gregor Thuswaldner is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Languages and Linguistics at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and co-director of the Salzburg Institute of Gordon College. He and his family live in Beverly, MA.