Saturday 21 September 2019

Barbara Scully: 'Silent Night: the carol that soothes troubled waters'

Home Life

'(Silent Night) is a song we have known forever' (Stock photo)
'(Silent Night) is a song we have known forever' (Stock photo)

Barbara Scully

It is a carol that has resonated through 200 Christmases; a melody as old-fashioned as the aroma of dried fruit marinating in brandy for the festive pudding.

A simple, uncomplicated song that carries the echoes of long-lost childhood innocence, when we wondered at the story of the baby born in a manger in a far away land.

It is a song we have known forever, woven into Nativity plays, not only of our own childhoods, but of our children's earliest days at school when their young voices lent it a special sweetness that reduced this cynical writer to tears on occasion.

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"Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright."

Silent Night began as a poem, written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, in 1816. Two years later Mohr asked his friend Franz Xaver Gruber to put it to music and they first performed the carol on Christmas Eve at St Nicholas Church in the little village of Oberndorf in Austria with Mohr playing guitar.

The year 1816 was a time of great uncertainty and upheaval following the Napoleonic wars, as boundaries were re-drawn and violence persisted.

It was also known as the 'year without summer' when Europe experienced extreme weather with flooding and loss of the harvest due to the effects of a catastrophic eruption of a volcano in Indonesia. Mohr wrote the lyrics in German, as opposed to Latin, ensuring that his words of comfort and calm were immediately accessible to all. Gruber's simple lullaby is the perfect melody to soothe a troubled people.

From the valleys of Austria, Stille Nacht was carried by Tyrolian singers and Catholic missionaries beyond all the shifting borders of central Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean. Gruber and Mohr, who had spent only a relatively short period of time as friends, had managed to craft something very special which has continued to comfort an uneasy world for two centuries.

The song has been translated into over 300 languages and its message of peace was recognised by Unesco in 2011 when it declared Silent Night as an intangible cultural heritage.

It serves as a counterpoint to the horror of World War I with tales of it being sung on both sides of the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. It was apparently also sung by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the gardens of the White House.

The lyricist Joseph Mohr spent only two years in the village of Oberndorf where the carol was first performed.

He spent the last decade of his life in the Austrian town of Wagrain where he established a fund to enable poor children attend school, and a home for the poor and elderly. He died in 1848 as impoverished as many of his congregation, his only material possession being his guitar.

Musician Franz Xaver Gruber had quite a different life after the few years he spent with Mohr in Oberndorf. He married three times and had a total of 12 children. He spent his later life in the town of Hallein near Salzburg where he was choirmaster and organist at the parish church.

He died in 1863, having lived long enough to experience the first wave of Silent Night's success.

Inside the sacred space of the church in Hallein on a cold day in November, I light a candle for all kinds of special intentions but mainly for my family in Dublin and in Perth, Australia. Churches, whether at home or abroad, are always a welcome respite from the hubbub of life, providing an oasis of peace and reflection. They are familiar places with their flickering candles, statues and ornate iconography.

The church in Hallein, so connected with Franz Xaver Gruber, is no different. Drawing my huge coat around me as I prepare to leave, I am asked to take a seat for a special surprise.

A woman enters, clutching a guitar which I recognise as a replica of Mohr's that I had just seen in the museum opposite the church.

The first notes of Stille Nacht float up into the still air of the church and the woman begins to sing. It takes me a moment to recognise the words - but the instant I do, the tug on my heart is visceral and I feel the uncontrollable trickle of tears, much to my embarrassment.

"Oiche chiuin, oiche Mhic De, Cach na suan, dis araon."

This Austrian woman, with the voice of an angel, is singing in my ancient language. A kaleidoscope of memories and images from Christmas Eves, many long ago, some more recent, tumble into my mind. The Christmases of my childhood and of my children's childhoods.

I think of my granddaughter, shortly to experience her second Christmas. And silently I give thanks to Mohr and Gruber for their gift - not just to Austria - but to the world and to all the generations.

"Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."

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