Soon it will be “Goodbye 2010s” to an eventful decade and on its wake will resonate “Hello 2020s” in spirits of fresh-found confidence. Despite the anticipations of the prospect of a flourishing brand new year, considering the shifts in attitudes, fixation on praising excess, awful incidents emerging around the world, etc, one can’t help feeling a quiver of anxiety about what have the wheels of fate in store. As the years roll by with an almost frightening rapidity in a fusion of happiness, apprehensions and solidities, experiences prove that there are instances when one could not help feeling like a hooked fish on the time’s line.
Now as we hold up five fingers, four, three, two …. to signify the final-run-down to the Christmas day, the tale of Christmas miracle cannot be aptly told without music. This time around, in our mind’s eye, we go to Salzburg – to that gem of the Austrian Alps of castles, fortresses, churches, museums, parks, and, of course, nature.
Some years ago, we had the pleasure to drive around and savour the enchantment of Austria. Vienna hosted us as the base of our domicile for this visit. A clear rival to Paris in the superiority and variety of its architectural decorations and every style of art, Vienna proffered us a good stroke of fun with the fortunate presence of our friends.
As I wrote in earlier posts, we drove or foot-marched over much of the city to set our sights on the fave haunts of the locals and also on out-of-the-way tourist spots not counting the 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace, the Museums, Wiener Staatsoper, the Burgtheater, Stephansdom, Café Sacher Wien and other coffee spots where no one knows how to make bad coffee.
Hoping to get some more inspiration and to make good of the plentiful time at our disposal, we had jumped in with both feet and visited places as far as Graz, Salzburg, and their vicinities. Without a glitch, those days were mostly bright and of clear blue sky. All the way the only shadow cast was from the trees.
Our trip to Graz was covered in the car and company of my old business friend in Vienna from my days in the Middle East. At Salzburg, we were driven around by Herr Rupert, a gentlemanly fellow who only wanted to please as he took us around. Rupert, as we know, is the name of the patron saint of Salzburg who founded the Abbey of St. Peter’s beneath the sheltering cliffside of Mount Mönchsberg in the center of the Old City. With musical luminaries as talented as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Herbert von Karajan gracing the annals of the city, the delight of music is so divine and tangible in the air.
Now back to Christmas – a little more than 200 years ago, Josef Mohr (1792-1848), an assistant priest in the sacristan of Oberndorf bei Salzburg wrote a new poem of Christmas flavour at his first parish in Mariapfarr, the village of his father where Josef had cut his teeth as a priest at a young age in 1815.
Although limited to a year, Josef’s clerical term out at Mariapfarr was in 1816 when Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773–1859), the Chancellor of Austria, won repossession of the Province of Salzburg for Austria from the Bavarian crown. The following year, Josef was appointed as curate to Oberndorf, about twenty km from Salzburg. It was a village of boatmen, wooden and stone houses located on the Austrian bank on the serpentine bend of the River Salzach (Salt River/Igonta). Originally a Roman settlement, Oberndorf was mentioned in the Salzburg chronicles as early as 1050.
It is said that a clergyman sees you at your best, a lawyer at your worst and a doctor as you really are. Having taken up residency in Oberndorf, Josef conducted his priesthood which enriched the life of that parish.
During the morning of the day Josef had written the poem, he was with his closest friend Franz “Franzl” Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), a village schoolmaster, song writer and church organist. Josef was attending a celebration in the school house of Franz in the village of Arnsdorf when they realised that there was no really great Christmas song. The Christmas is already right at their doorstep.
And so, the poem Josef wrote celebrates the greatest birthday of all time – illumines the holy night and the birth of a baby in a stable at Bethlehem long time ago. It held the vision of a baby so little and soft – pure as a white flame. Having grown up close to River Salzach, no doubt, Josef must be inspired by the legend of the statue “The Enthroned Madonna with Child” (about 1500) which is believed to be a work of miracles and supposedly washed ashore by the ice-drift in the River Salzach.
At Josef’s instance, Franz who lived in Arnsdorf and performed in the post of organist at Oberndorf since 1816, soon composed tune to accompany the poem in German verses which was named the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (Silent Night). A task he accomplished creditably, Franz’s composition, said to be done during the afternoon of November 24, 1818, was goodness set to music and his idea of perfection lauded the dictum that a good melody must be rooted in the nature of the human voice.
The song was performed publically for the first time during the Christmas Midnight Mass of 1818 at St. Nikola parish church at Oberndorf – just a stone’s throw away from the serpentine bend of River Salzach. The working partnership of Josef and Franz was extremely successful – an alliance that would subsequently unite their names famously for all time. Rendering the song as a duet in the plain rural dignity of that church, curate Josef sang the melody and played the guitar while composer Franz sang the bass. It was complemented by chorus of the resident choir. Undoubtedly, Josef and Franz didn’t want to face less than perfection in their song and it made a remarkable effect on the congregation of parishioners of that great Midnight Mass.
In such ready expertness, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” had to be first played to guitar accompaniment because the works of the church organ on which it was to be played at the church service was damaged useless probably by the gnawing mice and river flooding. Even though under normal circumstances guitar was not a medium in vogue acceptable to play a German song in the church service, the guitar had become a favoured medium since by that period the six-string guitar had replaced the lute completely and was of greater prominence on the European concert stages.
The work of Josef and Franz more or less would have been confined to the repertory of that parish and slipped into obscurity had it not been for Karl Mauracher, an organ builder, a one-off who came to repair the damaged organ. He took an interest in the song and sought a copy of its text and music to take along with him to his village in beautiful Tyrol in Western Austria which attracts many tourists.
No sooner had they heard the version of the song from the organ builder, the Strasser Quartette, famous for their beautiful singing of Tyrolese mountain songs, was won over by the full zenith of its charm. At length, they added it to their repertoire and performed widely on their concert tours as “The Tyrolian Song” due to its place of birth. It was often considered a folk song but without any known authorship of its poet or musical composer.
Although the Rainers, another singing group had taken “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” into their shows as early as 1819, it was later sung by the Strasser Quartette before the congregation at the great cathedral of Leipzig, Germany. The song remained unprinted until 1840. Some attributed its melody to Johann Michael Haydn (1737–1806) until the Royal Court musicians in Berlin, in their wisdom, enquired with the Abbey of St. Peter’s (Stift Sankt Peter) in Salzburg about the origin of the Christmas song “Silent Night”, believed to be by Michael Haydn of that Abbey. Through Franz’s son, this inquiry reached the ears of Franz who was then still alive while Josef had since deceased. It was nearing the end of 1854 when Franz set his claim to Berlin and soon after received credit for his creation.
In 1854, the “romanticist on the throne” Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (Reign: 1840-1861), whose beautiful Queen consort Elisabeth (Elise) Ludovika of Bavaria who had been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, took great interest in “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” following its performance before him by the Berlin Church Choir. He delightfully ordered it be given first place in all Christmas programmes. Curiously, he was the first Emperor of Prussia to enter a Roman Catholic place of worship when, back in 1844, he attended the celebrations marking the completion of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). From that distance of time, trooping ahead past events like its performance during the World War I front-line during the Christmas Truce, until today, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was on a moving treadmill fuelled year on and on by popularity – casting a celestial spell upon all Christendom and in a multitude of directions.
During an interview in the early last century, the grandson of Franz produced a copy of the manuscript of “Silent Night” in his possession which he claimed to be a copy made by Franz Gruber in 1836. The original is no longer in existence. It was the oldest known copy and contained the original stanzas penned by Josef for which voices and instruments were arranged.
Presently, the Stille Nacht Kapelle, the memorial chapel blessed in 1937, stands on the site of the old St. Nikola Church which disappeared with time – perhaps consequent to the deadly maelstrom of floods of River Salzach in 1899 when most of the river-side houses were carried away. The year 1899 may be remembered by movie lovers as the year of birth of American actor Humphrey “Bogie” Bogart. He was a Christmas baby born on December 25th. The image of the old chapel can be seen, among other works, on the brochure of Stille Nacht Kapelle and as chocolate-box scenes.
The carols we always associate with Christmas are of very old religious lyric and musical idea. The combination of singing and dancing carols is undated since it existed among people from time immemorial. As one could think of the Christian tradition of the joyful hymn of praise “Gloria in excelsis Deo” the angels sung to the Shepherds, appreciating the Nativity story in a stirring age in our history, the popular mind could also reflect on the soft lullaby of the Nazarene maiden Mary as she lulls her new-born babe to sleep in a manger of that hamlet called Bethlehem (according to a book, the name Bethlehem signifies the “House of Bread“).
Fashions have changed – tastes have altered – the carols may go in and out of favour. Then again, together with the seasonal favourites “O Come All Ye Faithful / Adeste Fideles,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, the jubilant “Joy to the World”, etc, the soulful Christmas carol “Silent Night” has always sweetened the joyous effect in our home during the Christmas Eve.
As Christmastime shows up annually, we have had our moments in the festivities, feasting and jollities that goes along with it. In common parlance, the Christmas favourite lists: the living room dressed in the house’s finest, the Nativity crib, a brightly decorated tree to glisten and gleam with baubles, tinsel and fairy lights, the mistletoe, the Christmas stockings and gifts, the brass and silver brightly polished, the holiday table laden for sumptuous feast fit for a gastrophile at heart, the seasonal melodies like the “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,” to moon and swoon, to talk over old and new times with near and dear. All those Christmas traditions are perfect and nice to hold on to – and meaningful, too.
The concept of the illuminated Christmas trees in legends of Germany relates to the heathen belief that the new life energy developed after midwinter by all trees and sprigs should be taken into homes to radiate its power among all those who live there. Delightfully, there are other things also not to lose sight of – mind you, to ensure a certain period to reminisce and meditate about all things that one builds too high in one’s mind and to thank for our many blessings.
At this time, Christmas would seem funny here without snow. But we would overlook that – for it has always been so. Then again, certainly there will be melodies inspired by my wife from our collection of her native Weihnachtslieder to ensure this Christmastime will be one of enchantment.
A Merry Christmas full of Joy and Cheer
Jo & Carina
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)