One of the world’s most beloved carols, Silent Night has touched many hearts and lives throughout history. It has a bit of an interesting start. The song that most connect with peaceful piano arrangements, was actually written for the gentle, mellow tone of the guitar.
In a little burg in Austria, the song found its beginning. The Napoleonic wars had taken a brutal toll on the little village, before finally coming to a close, leaving a brokenness in its wake. One evening, Jospeh Mohr was walking just outside the little village. A veteran of the fighting that took place in the Napoleonic wars, Mohr was tired and worn from the constant onslaught of death over the past years. He walked through the depths of snow and cold, alone with his thoughts. A blanket of snow had fallen, leaving a stillness over the entire village. The realization hit him that finally, after years of harsh fighting and death, peace had come once again to mend their broken hearts. He penned the words we now recognize, in a poem form.
A few years later, while preparing for a children’s program, it was discovered that the organ that was to be used for the program had broken. Mohr needed to figure out a way to save the program. What he decided was that the poem he had written that snowy evening years before, could be put to music. He entrusted the task to his good friend, Franz Gruber. There was only one requirement. The music had to be written specially for a guitar to play.
Franz was a highly talented young musician. Growing up, he had an increasing love for music. He couldn’t keep himself from longing to learn to piece together the lovely notes into melodies that would cheer people’s hearts. Seeing his great potential, a local music teacher offered to give Franz music lessons for free. His father, however, vehemently opposed the proposition, and beat him routinely for going to them. Still, Franz couldn’t resist learning the language of music, and chose to suffer the beatings rather than stop taking the lessons.
This love of music came just in the nick of time on this snowy Christmas Eve in 1818. With only a few hours to pull something together, Franz composed the music to Silent Night. He wrote it specifically for Mohr’s guitar, and finished it with only a few minutes to spare. The children’s program was getting ready to start. There wasn’t time for Franz and Mohr to teach the words and tune to the choir, so they decided to sing it in a duet together.
In the peaceful calm of that Christmas Eve, Mohr with his tenor voice and Franz with his bass, debuted the carol that has come to be one of the most beloved in the world. The gentle accompaniment of the guitar whispered the song in a style reminiscent of a lullaby. A hush fell over the crowd gathered for the program. This simple little song resonated with them in a very special way.
This is one of my favorite carols to listen to—on any instrument. Of course being a guitarist myself, I have a deep appreciation for it being played by the beautiful stringed instrument it was intended for. 😉
As you enjoy your holiday celebrations and hear this song played so many times over, perhaps you will have a deeper appreciation for the words. They brought peace in the midst of the brokenness of war.
Did you know Silent Night was written with guitar specifically in mind? What is your favorite carol? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe if you enjoy my content!
~A. M. Watson