A Capital City Connection for Season's Best-Loved Hymn

Dec 5, 2018

One of the best-loved songs of the holidays is celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary this year. It turns out that song also has a direct connection to Tallahassee.

A contemporaneous image of the 1914 Christmas Eve Truce
Credit time.com

Florida State University Musicologist Dr. Sarah Eyerly said the very fact that "Silent Night" has been around for so long makes it a very special piece of music.

“It’s had an unbroken performance history since the music was written in 1818. And for a musicologist studying musical traditions of songs, that is very important. Very few pieces are performed more than 20, 30, 40 years after they’re written.”

But it's not only the song's longevity that makes it unique. The saga of how "Silent Night" came to be is a fascinating story in and of itself.

“In 1816 a young Catholic priest by the name of Joseph Mohr wrote this poem and 1816 was a very important time in Salzburg and the area of Austria where Mohr was living.”

The poem Father Mohr wrote, explained Eyerly, was to give his parishioners just a little peace and hope in a time of ruin and despair.

“It was just at the end of the Napoleonic Wars,” she recalled. “The country was rather devastated. People were poor, a lot of buildings had been destroyed along with the infrastructure. Salzburg was a capital of the salt trade in Austria and that had been very disrupted. Also, 1816 was known as the ‘Year Without a Summer.’”

A massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year now filled the skies over Europe with a pall of ash. Temperatures plummeted. Crops failed. People starved. Meanwhile, Eyerly said Father Moore had deferred the dream of someday putting his Christmas poem to music.

“He kept the poem for almost two years until just before Christmas Eve of 1818 when he had been transferred to a parish in the town of Obendorf, which was along the Salza River south of Salzburg. And he asked a local school teacher with whom he was friends, Franz Xaver Gruber to compose the music. It’s almost as if he had been waiting for the right chance.”

In addition to creating one of the most beautiful and memorable melodies imaginable, Eyerly said Gruber deliberately chose a very specific rhythmic structure for the song; a gentle, flowing, almost liquid rhythm.

“It’s a style of music that’s appropriate for people living along the river,” she noted. “A lot of people in Obendorf worked on the river as part of the salt trade. In Italy (the rhythm) was associated with the seacoast: fishermen, barge captains, gondoliers. It has this rolling sense of waves.”

Father Mohr wrote the original text of "Silent Night" in German. Years later, another priest, an Episcopal cleric, performed the English translation. And this is where the Tallahassee connection comes in.

“John Freeman Young was ordained in the early 1840s and in 1846 he traveled here to Tallahassee and he was ordained at St. John’s Episcopal right in downtown Tallahassee.”

As bishop, Young would later make his home in Tallahassee. There are many other stories associated with "Silent Night." Eyerly says the gentle hymn even brought a few fleeting hours of peace to a warring world.

“Along the battle lines in Flanders (during World War I) both on the British and the German sides on Christmas Eve 1914, people lay down their weapons and they sang ‘Silent Night’ as it was something that linked both the British and the Germans together culturally.”

Since the invention of audio recording, "Silent Night" has been among the world's most frequently recorded songs.

“Looking at the records from the U.S. Copyright Office, we see that it’s been recorded – or at least registered – by artists at least 730 times just since the 1970s.”

And Eyerly speculated the recorded versions of the song prior to that probably number in the thousands. So happy anniversary, "Silent Night." May you be equally as loved during your next 200 years.