Silent Night (Still the Night, Stille Nacht)
DESCRIPTION: German christmas song with multiple English translations, the most famous beginning "Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright." The night of Jesus's birth is praised
AUTHOR: Music: Franz Gruber (1787-1863) / German Words: Joseph Mohr (1792-1848)
EARLIEST DATE: 1832 (sheet music)
KEYWORDS: Christmas religious Jesus nonballad foreignlanguage
FOUND IN: Germany Britain US
REFERENCES (6 citations):
Fireside, p. 267, "Silent Night" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 384, "Silent Night" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, pp. 500-501, "Silent Night"
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), pp. 64-65, "Silent Night" (1 text, 1 tune)
Ian Bradley, _The Penguin Book of Carols_ (1999), #299, "Stille Nacht" (1 text)
Soul Stirrers, "Silent Night" (Aladdin 2028, n.d. but post-WWII)
NOTES: Joseph Mohr, the assistant priest at a church in Oberndorf, Austria (Reynolds, p. 192) reportedly wrote these words in 1818. The tale of Gruber's music is the stuff of folklore: His church's organ was broken, and could not be repaired until after Christmas. Therefore Gruber needed music for guitar and voice -- the only things he had available. On December 24, he wrote this music for Mohr's words.
According to Stulken, p. 168, "[Mohr and Gruber] sang the hymn that evening, with Gruber accompanying on the guitar, and the choir repeating the last two lines in four-part harmony."
It is said that the music was given to the world by the organ repairman, though this may be one cute story too many, as the song was not published until 1832. The truth, according to Johnson, is simply that the song was circulated privately for some years, until someone named Friese heard it, took it down, and had it published. It apparently took some time for Gruber and Mohr to get credit. It is interesting to note that Mohr wrote six verses (which, incidentally, never mention Mary!), but three of these have been completely ignored by later singers.
The first version published in America, J. W.Warner's "Silent night! Hallowe'd night" (published 1849 in The Devotional Harmonist) seems to have had no currency.
Julian, p. 761, lists no fewer than eight "common" English translations of these words and three that aren't in common use. There are really only three of much significance, though. The earliest, "Stilly night, holy night," by Emily Elliot, has since been largely forgotten. In the U.S., the form "Silent Night, Holy Night" is usual; it is often listed as anonymous though it's sometimes credited to John Freeman Young (e.g. Stulken, p. 129). Reynolds, pp. 470-471, also accepts the attributions, and points to an article in the October 1957 edition of The Hymn by Byron Edward Underwood, entitled "Bishop John Freeman Young, Translator of 'Stille Nacht.'" Reynolds reports that Young was born in Pittston, Maine, in 1820, and educated at Wesleyan University, but became an Episcopalian and attended Virginia Theological Seminary. He eventually became Bishop of Florida, and died in New York City in 1885.
In Britain, we often meet the version "Still the night." This too is often listed as anonymous, but Julian, p. 183, lists it as by Stopford Augustus Brooke (born 1832); I read somewhere that the translation was published in 1881, which would mean that it is from Brooke's Christian Hymns, which he published after becoming an Anglican in that year.
Neither "translation" actually represents the German words very well.
Spaeth reports that the song was popularized in the United States by the Reiner (Rainer) family, starting around 1841. Ian Bradley's Penguin Book of Carols also attributes its popularity to this group -- but in Austria.
Minnesota choral director Philip Brunelle makes the interesting point that we almost always hear this sung too slowly. Gruber's original arrangement was at a typical waltz tempo. The melody has also gotten a little less elaborate over the years; a couple of places where Gruber's melody cycled through a chord where we now stay on a single note.
Despite the famous story of the song's origin, some sources do not list Mohr and Gruber as the authors. Songs That Never Grow Old, which lists 1909 and 1913 copyright dates, calls it "Holy Night" and credits it to "Michael Haydn."
Also, there are other songs known as "Silent Night." H.S. Perkins, The Climax, 1883, p. 45, has an item that begins "Silent night! silent night! Starry lamps thy pathway trace, Look in heav'nly splendor bright...."
Julian, pp. 760-761, says that this is the only poem by Joseph Mohr ever translated into English, and reports that Mohr "was born at Salzburg, Austria, on Dec. 11, 1792. After being ordained priest on Aug. 21, 1815, by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salzburg, he was successively assistant at Ramsau and at Laufen; then coadjutor at Kuchl, at Golling, at Vigaun, at Adnet, and at Authering; then Vicar-Substitute at Hof and at Hintersee -- all in the diocese of Salzburg. In 1828 he was appointed Vicar at Hintersee, and in 1837 at Wagrein, near St. Johann. He d[ied] at Wagrein, Dec. 4, 1848."
Reynolds, p. 323, says that Gruber was born near Hochbert in 1787, the son of a linen weaver who did not encourage his son's musical interests; he learned to play violin on his own, then studied organ. He was primarily a schoolteacher from 1807 to 1833, taking up the job of organist in 1816 to supplement his income. In 1833 he finally got a full-time position as organist and choir director at Hallein. In his life he is credited with some ninety compositions, but this tune is the only one that is remembered. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
- Stulken: Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, Fortress Press, 1981
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.