Aural Advent Calendar: Day 17

It’s 1977, Jimmy Osmond is still a treble and powder blue was the wardrobe colour of choice for the Mormon Tabernacle costume department.

Heady days in Salt Lake City, folks.

With the whole Osmond family on hand to close out the show, sporting outfits in complementary shades of the focal colour, that year’s Christmas special could only have gone down in history as a success. Except for the slightly creepy hologram Jesus at the end of the broadcast. That we could have done without.

Most of the stories concerning Silent Night’s creation are remarkably sweet, the most elaborate of which involves a mouse, an organ-shaped snack and a last minute scramble to find accompaniment for the Christmas Eve service. Miss Mussel hates to be the one to bring the cold, harsh sledgehammer of reality out of the cupboard but according to the Silent Night Society, all such tales are apocryphal.

What really happened is rather more touching and, surprisingly, far more relevant to our current situation. Joseph Mohr, a Catholic priest wrote the poem in 1816 while serving at a parish in rural Austria. He moved to a new church in 1818 and had the organist there, Franz Xaver Gruber, have a go at setting the text for the Christmas Eve service. It seems that Mohr asked for a setting for guitar simply because he wanted a setting for guitar, not because there anything wrong with the organ.

There were 6 verses in the original German version, of which 1,6 and 2 are traditionally sung in English.

The political situation in these two years is what makes the carol rather contemporary in its sentiment. Here’s what the Silent Night Society has to say on the subject:

“Silent Night!” was created and first performed during very difficult times. The Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), which had caused great suffering, had come to an end.

With the Congress of Vienna there were new borders and a new order set for Europe. In the course of these events, the ecclesiastical Principality of Salzburg lost its status as an independent country and was forced to secularize. In 1816, its lands were divided in two with part assigned to Bavaria and the larger portion relegated to Austria.

The site where “Silent Night!” was first performed – Oberndorf by Salzburg – had been a suburb and was now separated from its town center of Laufen located across the river (today part of Bavaria, Germany) when the Salzach River became the new border. For centuries transportation of salt along the river had provided the basis for the local economy.

The salt trade declined during the Napoleonic wars, and then never fully recovered. This caused a depression in the local economy, with the transport companies, boat builders and laborers facing unemployment and an unsure future. It was during these troubled times that Mohr was in Oberndorf (1817-1819).

Mohr’s previous place of service, Mariapfarr, had suffered greatly during the withdrawal of the Bavarian occupation troops in 1816 and 1817. Mohr was witness to these events and in 1816, he wrote the words to “Silent Night!” With this in mind, the creation of the 4th verse of “Silent Night!” takes on special meaning.

The SNS has also helpfully provided literal translations of all 6 verses as well as images of several original autographs. Their site is easy on the eyes and packed full of all the information you could ever want. Well worth a visit.

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