Archive for December 24th, 2008

How A Melody “For Just One Night” Has Lasted 190 Years

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

190 years ago today, Father Josef Mohr had a musical/mouse problem. Rodents had chewed through the leather bellows of the pump organ at his tiny Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Oberndorff, high up in the Austrian Alps. The hymns of his Christmas Eve midnight mass would have to be sung a capella. The organ was going to be silent.

Unfortunately for Father Joe, he had chosen this particular Christmas Eve to write a poem which he hoped to have the church organist, Franz Gruber, accompany. When Franz told him about the busted bellows, the good father was so disappointed that Gruber made a very unusual suggestion for that day and age. It seems his wife had recently given him a guitar, and he could now – sometimes – play 4 chords (which, when you think about it, is more than Elvis needed for two decades.)

At Fr. Joe’s urging, Franz agreed to compose a simple little melody that would would suffice for this one Christmas Eve. Next year, when the organ was working again, he promised to create something lasting, grand, and glorious.

And so it was – on December 24th, 1818 – the congregation of the Church of St. Nicholas first heard Gruber’s temporary tune. It must have made a wonderful impression – the congregation has continued the tradition of singing the hymn to guitar accompaniment every Christmas Eve since.)

Over the next 25 years, the song spread, but not the story of its creation. Ultimately, it was published in sheet music form throughout Europe. But every version listed its composers as “Anonymous,” “Traditional,” or “Unknown.”

Then, in 1843, a music salesman stopped in at the tiny church in Oberndorff. Even after all those years, Franz Gruber was still the organist and choir master. As Franz thumbed through a folio of the salesman’s songs, he was astonished to see his melody prominently displayed. Only then did he learn that his simple little tune had become famous. And only then could we know that this beloved Christmas musical treasure was written at a moment when desperation and inspiration collided head-on.

And an organist with no organ to play (and only 4 chords on his guitar) lovingly crafted a melody “for one night” that we still sing every Christmas season: “Silent Night.”