“Silent Night, Holy Night”

I hope  everyone had a great week and are doing well. I know one thing. This is some of the strangest weather I have ever seen. It’s been a roller coaster ride for the last couple of weeks. One day hot, one day cold. May be it will settle down soon.

Tonight we will look at another wonderful Christmas carol and perhaps the most played and sung carol of them all. Although originally written for guitar accompaniment, “Silent Night” has been presented by many different instruments, orchestrations, choral and choir arrangements and solo vocals. It is certainly one of my favorites. As a matter of fact it is my favorite by far. I think you will find the following article interesting and will have a greater appreciation for this grand old carol after reading it.

“Silent Night, Holy Night”

One of the most iconic Christmas songs, Silent Night made its world premier on Christmas Eve 1818 in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The performance, which was given during Christmas mass in the town’s quaint little church, was quite a success, but no one had any idea that the piece would eventually become hugely popular around the globe.

Joseph Mohr – Lyrics

The lyrics for the song, which is called “Stille Nacht” in the original German version were written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr. Born out of wedlock in Salzburg on December 11, 1792 Mohr was able to attend the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium (private high school) in Salzburg with the help of dome vicar Johann Nepomuk Hiernle. The vicar recognized the young Mohr’s musical talent and Mohr became a member of the choirs of the University of Salzburg and the Benedictine monastery, where he sang and played the violin. From 1808 to 1810 he studied philosophy at the lyceum of the famous Benedictine monastery in Kremsmünster, Upper Austria, and eventually returned to Salzburg where he continued his studies at the lyceum.

In 1811 Joseph Mohr entered the seminary after being granted a special permission, which he had to obtain given his status as an illegitimate child. He successfully finished the seminary four years later and was ordained as a Catholic priest on August 21, 1815. Following his ordination, Mohr worked as an assistant priest in various communities across the province of Salzburg, including Mariapfarr, where he wrote the lyrics in 1816. In 1818, while serving as an assistant priest in Oberndorf, he met Franz Xaver Gruber whom he asked to compose the music to accompany the lyrics. Specifically, Mohr asked Gruber to compose a melody for choir, two solo voices, and guitar.

It was not until 1827 that Mohr was responsible for the administration of his own parish. Despite his popularity with his parishioners, who adored him for his outgoing personality and peace-loving attitude, the church made a failed attempt to “reign him in” by accusing him of neglecting his job. The accusations turned out to be baseless and the official investigation was recalled. Mohr eventually found himself in Wagrain (Austria) where he focused his efforts on social reforms and dedicated the last ten years of his life to fighting poverty and helping those in need. Among other things, he initiated the building of a school in Wagrain, which was officially opened in 1838. Joseph Mohr died on December 4, 1848 in Wagrain where he found his final resting place.

Franz Xaver Gruber – Music

Joseph Mohr’s stirring poem about the birth of Jesus would have been all but forgotten had it not been for Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber, who was born Conrad Xavier Gruber on November 25, 1787 in Hochburg, Upper Austria later changed his name to Franz Xaver Gruber. He was the fifth of six children in a poor family, with both of his parents making a living as linen weavers, and was supposed to follow in their footsteps. However, Gruber displayed a love for music from an early age on, which was fostered and encouraged by his elementary school teacher, Andreas Peterlechner, who gave the young boy music lessons. Gruber worked as a weaver until the age of eighteen, at which point he finally received his father’s permission to become a teacher. It was also from Peterlechner that Gruber learned the basics for becoming a teacher, which enabled him to successfully pass the public teacher’s exam in Ried im Innkreis (Upper Austria) in 1806.

The following year was marked by two important events in Gruber’s life. He started his first job as an elementary teacher at the public school in Arsndorf (Salzburg), and he married Maria Elisabeth Engelsberger, the widowed wife of his predecessor, with whom he had two children. Both of them died at an early age. In 1816 he became the organist of the newly formed parish of Oberndorf, where he also wanted to work as a teacher. Unfortunately, that wish was never granted. His life was filled with his duties as a teacher and organist, and even though school attendance was very low in those days as most farmers kept their children at home as extra work hands, in a report dated 1821 his school was named the best in the district.

The highlight, however, of his time in Arnsdorf was no doubt when Joseph Mohr asked him on Christmas Eve of 1818 to compose the music for his poem “Silent Night”. Gruber called it a “simple composition” and did not seem to have thought much of it. Of course, that was all to change in the years to come. For Gruber himself, the real highlight of his career were the celebrations surrounding the 300th anniversary of Arnsdorf’s pilgrimage church “Maria im Mösl” in 1820. The festivities attracted 20,000 visitors who, along with the abbots of the Michaelbeuern monastery and the monastery of St. Peter enjoyed the musical performances of the church orchestra, which Gruber conducted.

Following the death of his first wife, Gruber married one of his students, Maria Breitfuß in 1825. They had ten children, six of whom died during childhood. Frustrated by his failed attempts to find a job as a teacher in Oberndorf, Gruber and his family left for Berndorf bei Salzburg in 1829. His desire to dedicate his life to music was finally fulfilled in 1835 when he was assigned as choir director and organist of Hallein (Salzburg). His happiness was cut short though when in 1841 his wife and their last child both died during labor. But life had to go on, and only a year later Gruber married his third wife, Katharina Wimmer, a friend of his second wife.

Throughout his lifetime, Gruber created a substantial musical oeuvre, and his love of music had a lasting impact on his family, including two of his sons who followed in his footsteps. Franz Xaver Gruber died in 1863 at the age of 76 in Hallein.

Historical Context

When Joseph Mohr wrote the song in 1816, Europe was going through a time of transition. The Napoleonic Wars had ended in the Congress of Vienna, resulting in a complete restructuring of Europe’s borders. Among the many changes that took place, the Principality of Salzburg which had until then been under the auspices of the church lost its independence and was divided and secularized, with one part of Salzburg now belonging to Bavaria, and the bigger portion belonging to Austria. Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where the premier took place in 1818, became a divided town with the river Salzach forming the border between Austria and Germany. Over the centuries, the Salzach had served as a main artery for the transportation of salt, and provided the basis for the town’s wealth. However, with the newly formed border running right through the town, the future seemed very uncertain. It was during this time that Mohr lived in Oberndorf. Before moving to Oberndorf, Mohr had lived in Mariapfarr for two years, which had greatly suffered under the occupation of the Bavarian troops. It is thought that this historical framework most likely informed Mohr’s beautifully expressed longing for peace in the fourth stanza.

From Oberndorf To The World

After the premier of Silent Night in 1818 in Oberndorf, the first copies seemed to have appeared in the geographical vicinity of the two creators, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber. According to historical documents, the earliest copies belonged to vicars, singers, choir directors, organists, and school teachers in various towns and villages in Salzburg. However, the names of Gruber and Mohr were soon forgotten, and in 1854 and inquiry was made by the Royal Prussian Court Chapel with the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter in Salzburg as to the author(s). This incident prompted Gruber to write an “Authentic Account” about the origins and its authors, which has survived to this day and has provided most of the historical facts surrounding the creation of the song. It took until 1866 when it was first published in a book of church songs to finally become well known in Salzburg.

As early as 1819 it seems to have made its debut outside of Salzburg, in the Zillertal in Tyrol, where it was supposedly performed on Christmas Eve 1819 in the village of Fügen. Gruber himself mentioned in his “Authentic Account” that it was brought to Tyrol by a “well known man from Zillerthal”. This man was none other than Carl Mauracher, who in 1821 was employed by Gruber to repair the church organ in Arnsdorf, and who built a new organ for the church in Oberndorf in 1825. It is not known but quite possible that Mauracher knew Gruber as early as 1819.

Two “singing” families from Zillertal, Rainer and Strasser, were eventually responsible for spreading it beyond the borders of Austria. Both families undertook extensive travels throughout Europe performing various songs in Germany and England as early as the 1820’s. The first documented recital outside of Austria occurred on December 1832 in Leipzig (Germany), where it was received with much applause. The following year, it was first published by A.R. Friese in Dresden and Leipzig (Germany) in a book called, “Eight Original Tyrolean Songs”. However, no mention was made of the songs’ authors and it differed considerably from its original version.

Silent Night started its final spread to all corners of the globe on Christmas Day 1839 when the Rainer family was on tour in the US for four years and gave a recital in New York in front of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial at Trinity Church’s cemetery at the end of Wall Street. By the mid-19th century it had been translated into English, and it popped up as “Choral of Salzburg” at an American booth at the World Fair in Vienna in 1873. Catholic and protestant missionaries further helped spread the song, which by the turn of the 19th century had reached all five continents. Today, Stille Nacht is known in 300 languages and dialects around the world.


Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, All is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so Tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night.
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar;
Heavenly hosts sing Al-le-lu-ja.
Christ the Savior is born.
Christ the Savior is born.

Silent night, holy night.
Wondrous star, lend thy light.
With the angels let us sing
Alleluia to our King.
Christ the Savior is here,
Jesus the Savior is here.

Silent night, Holy night.
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord at thy birth;
Jesus Lord at thy birth.

I sure hope you have enjoyed reading about the history of some of the old traditional Christmas carols of which we all have grown up listening to and singing. I might do one more on Christmas Eve if I have time. Either way, next week’s post will certainly  be laced with the Christmas theme and the birth of our Lord. God bless each of you and a very Merry Christmas.


“Joy To The World”

Hello to all. I’m sure everyone has enjoyed the last few days of cold temperatures. Not! I know I was not ready for it, especially after all the hot and dry weather we have had for so long. Brought my long handles out and have worn them all week.

Becky and I spent a few days in Branson, Missouri the first of the week and really enjoyed the time together. Took in some beautiful scenery and a wonderful concert by the group SIX. The group consists of six brothers and all of their music was performed without the use of instruments. They were fantastic.

We have also spent the weekend watching local performances of “A Christmas Story” and “The Best Christmas Pageant”. One on Friday night and the other tonight. We just happen to be related to the star of both plays and are very proud of them.

Tonight I have included an article about another one of the well-known Christmas carols that we all have heard for many years. “Joy to the World” is sung all over the world in many different languages. I just heard it a few minutes ago on television and also heard it on the radio on the way home tonight. I hope you enjoy the following story of how Isaac Watts included this hymn in his collection of “The Psalms of David”.

History of Hymns: “Joy to the World”

by C. Michael Hawn

Isaac Watts“Joy to the World”
by Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 246

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

“Joy to the world” is perhaps an unlikely popular Christmas hymn. First of all, it is based on a psalm, and, second, it celebrates Christ’s second coming much more than the first. This favorite Christmas hymn is the result of a collaboration of at least three people and draws its initial inspiration not from the Christmas narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98.

The first collaborator was the English poet and dissenting clergyman, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He paraphrased the entire Psalm 98 in two parts, and it first appeared in his famous collection, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).

“Joy to the world” was taken from the second part of the paraphrase (Psalm 98:4-9), entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Watts, commenting on his paraphrase of the psalm, notes: “In these two hymns I have formed out of the 98th Psalm I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief Sense of the Holy Scriptures . . ..” For Watts, the psalms were not to be viewed as biblical material in their own right, but had value only inasmuch as they pointed toward the New Testament.

A comparison between Watts’s psalm paraphrase and the original verses in the King James translation of Psalm 98:4-9 demonstrates considerable freedom:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together.  Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.” (KJV)

Curiously, stanza three is the exception. It is not based on Psalm 98 and is sometimes omitted:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

The “curse” is a reference to Genesis 3:17 when God says to Adam following the eating of the apple from the tree, “Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” (KJV) As a part of “five-point Calvinism,” the “total depravity of man”, the curse is a significant part of classic Reformed theology, Isaac Watts’ theological perspective.

Though The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) retains the original text, the hymnal of the United Reformed Church in the UK, Rejoice and Sing (1991), altered the stanza as follows:

No more let thorns infest the ground,
or sins and sorrows grow;
wherever pain and death are found
he makes his blessings flow.

The second collaborator was an unwitting one, George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), the popular German-born composer residing in London. Though contemporaries in England, they did not collaborate on this hymn. Another pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune that we sing in North America. The opening bars for the chorus, “Lift up your heads,” was adapted to the incipit “Joy to the world.” An instrumental portion of the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye,” provides a basis for the text “heaven and nature sing.” Such borrowings were common, the aesthetic notion being that the music of great musicians had in itself an innate beauty. Even a crude pastiche of “great music” implied that the result would also be of high quality.

The third collaborator who assured that this tune and text would appear together in the United States was the Boston music educator, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). It was Mason, a musician with significant influence in his day, who published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836) and named the tune Antioch. While this is not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one. Actually, this tune remains virtually unknown in Great Britain.

When sung to Antioch, the text is repeated in the second section, reflecting a particular early American treatment of the melody called a “fuging tune.” A fuging tune was a compositional device initiated by American-born composer William Billings (1746-1800) where voice parts enter one after the other in rapid succession, usually repeating the same words.

The result of the fuging tune section is quite effective for the first stanza—“heaven and nature sing”—and the second stanza—“repeat the sounding joy”—and the fourth stanza, “wonders of his love” For the third stanza, with the text “far as the curse is found” echoing of Genesis 3:17-18 and Romans 5:20, the fuging compositional device seems a bit rollicking.

The result is a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States!

I love Christmas carols and have developed a much greater appreciation for the writers, the words and the music that is presented by them. As I’ve said before, it never ceases to amaze me how God uses all kinds of people at various points in time to bless us with their talents.

“Hark The Herald Angels Sing”

Good evening to all. I hope everyone had a good week and are happy to finally see some rain coming our way. It sure was a long dry spell but it looks like that has ended. Maybe we will also see some snow later on. I know all the kids would enjoy that.

It’s hard to believe that Christmas Day is only three weeks away. Where does the time go? Speaking of Christmas I have included an article about the history of another carol. Many of our Christmas carols were written around the theme of peace on earth and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” is no exception. I hope you enjoy the following article about that wonderful old song.

History of Hymns: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”

by C Michael Hawn

“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”
by Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 240

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Refrain: Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”

The opening lines of this favorite Christmas hymn echo Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. . .” (KJV). Immediately, the hymn writer established a cosmic connection between the heavenly chorus and our hope for peace on earth. While many Christmas carols recount in one way or another the Christmas narrative, Wesley provides a dense theological interpretation of the Incarnation.

Wesley begins not with the prophets, the Annunciation to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem or the search for a room, but in media res – in the middle of the action. Rather than citing the final phrase of Luke 2:14 – “good will toward men” (KJV) – he offers his theological interpretation – “God and sinners reconciled.” This is indeed a stronger theological statement. Note that lines 2, 3, and 4 of the opening stanza are placed in quotation marks, an indication that they are virtually citations from Scripture. Wesley includes his theological interpretation of the last poetic line within the quoted material indicating the strength and authority of his perspective.

“God and sinners reconciled” was a natural interpretation since the hymn was written within a year of Charles Wesley’s conversion. It first was published under the title “Hymn for Christmas Day” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) in ten shorter stanzas, each stanza half the length of the stanzas we sing today. The hymn that we now sing is the result of many alterations by numerous individuals and hymnal editorial committees.

Changes in hymn texts are quite common. The average singer on Sunday morning would be amazed (or perhaps chagrined) to realize how few hymns before the twentieth century in our hymnals appear exactly in their original form. Perhaps the most notable change in this hymn was Wesley’s first line. The original read, “Hark how all the welkin rings!” “Welkin” is an archaic English term referring to the sky or the firmament of the heavens, even the highest celestial sphere of the angels. This term certainly supported the common eighteenth-century notion of the three-tiered universe, where the top tier includes the celestial beings, the lowest tier the normal activities of humanity (birth, death, marriage, work, sickness) and the natural created order (rain, drought, natural disasters), and the middle tier where celestial beings influence the activities of beings and events on earth with their superhuman powers.

Gratefully, George Whitefield (1740-1770), a powerful preacher and friend to the Wesley brothers, made several changes to this hymn in his Collection (1753). He eschewed the original first line for the scriptural dialogue between heaven and earth. Wesley scholar and professor at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Ted Campbell, comments on Whitefield’s modification of the first line with his characteristic humor: “I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a welkin was supposed to be. Maybe John looked at the draft version and said, ‘It’s ever so lovely, Charles, but whatever on earth is a ‘welkin’?’ So, all the more reason to give thanks for the editorial work of George Whitefield.”

The familiar first line we now sing sets up the opening stanza as an expansion of the song of the angels in Luke 2:14. Rather than exerting influence in the form of spirits, demons, or other beings said to inhabit the middle zone of the three-tiered universe, God, through the Incarnation, comes directly to earth in human form, the “Word made flesh . . . [dwelling] among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, KJV). The change in the opening line is perhaps the most significant alteration of the many that have taken place in this hymn over the centuries.

The second most significant change from the original is the addition of the refrain, reiterating the first phrase of Luke 2:14. This came about for musical reasons. Almost exactly 100 years after the hymn’s composition, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed a cantata, Festgesang (1840), celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. A chorus from this cantata was adapted and paired with Wesley’s text in The Congregational Psalmist (1858) by an English musician and singer under Mendelssohn, William H. Cummings (1831-1915). A famous and influential hymn collection, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), carried this arrangement and helped to standardize its form and promote its broader use. Pairing the tune MENDELSSOHN with Wesley’s text caused two additional changes from the original. Two of Wesley’s short stanzas were combined into one to fit the longer tune; a refrain, repeating the first two lines of stanza one, was added to accommodate the tune. There is no doubt that most of the alterations to Wesley’s original text combined with Mendelssohn’s rousing tune have helped to make this one of the most festive and popular of all Christmas hymns.

The final four stanzas of Wesley’s original are usually omitted. This is understandable as they are theologically and biblically dense with allusion and, perhaps, not as poetic as the oft-quoted stanzas. Yet they give us insight into Wesley’s theology of the Incarnation:

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart


The allusions to Scripture and various Wesleyan theological concepts are many. A few must suffice. “Desire of nations” is a reference drawn from Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come . . ..” Handel incorporated this passage into Messiah (1741) in a bass solo in the Christmas portion of the oratorio. John Mason Neale, translating the Latin hymn Veni, veni Emanuel in the middle nineteenth century, cited this reference into the final stanza of his hymn: “O come, Desire of nations, bind/in one the hearts of all mankind.”

Wesley often used the words, “mystic union,” a Moravian concept that he incorporated into Wesleyan theology in the second stanza cited above. In the third stanza above, we are reminded of imago Dei in the phrase, “Stamp Thine image in its place,” taking on the image of God in place of that of sinful Adam, a reference to the Wesleyan concept of sanctification.

“Hark! the herald angels sing” highlights the virgin birth, the universal application of the coming of “th’incarnate Deity” to all nations, and that Christ, who was “pleased with us in flesh to dwell,” gives humanity a “second birth.” The “second” or “new birth” was essential to Wesleyan theology in light of a controversy with the Moravians. The importance of this was illustrated in John Wesley’s sermon, “The Marks of the New Birth” that provides extensive scriptural basis for his view.

The final stanza in most hymnals paraphrases the beautiful biblical citation from Malachi 4:2: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (KJV).

Each Christmas season we are invited by this venerable hymn to join the angels in swelling the cosmic chorus:

With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Refrain: Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”


C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Becky and I will be traveling tomorrow so we request that you pray for us that God will give His travelling mercies on us. We will be spending a few days in Branson, Missouri and will be back in town on Wednesday evening.

Love you all and God Bless each of you.