1818: 200 Years Ago: The first performance of Silent Night
December 21, 2018
What can you say about that? Some incredible staying power to spread about the Western World and endure so long. Most certainly a standard for New Zealanders
“About 20 km north of Salzburg in the village of Oberndorf, the Silent Night Chapel (German: Stille Nacht Kapelle) marks the place where the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818. From a small parish church in Tyrol, this simple Christmas carol conquered the world. To this day it has been translated into about 300 languages and dialects around the globe.”- Sacred Destinations
Priest Josef Mohr penned the words in the wake of post Napoleonic War peace time within the context of his Catholic parish. However, the modern touch of the guitar melody came from his collaborator Franz Gruber (who we will imagine as Hans Gruber from the Christmas movie Die Hard.*) Guitars in church were unconventional in this time and place and would not have happened except a flood had ruined the usual arrangement. Thus, least there be no music at Christmas at all, Mohr and Gruber teamed up to perform this song which has now reached its bicentennial.
Why so enduring? My answer is that there are essential cycles that go back to the cultural dawn of human society that must take form. We’re not always at war¹, not always on the run or, in particular, fighting internal conflicts. Part of being human, unlike other animals, is the observance of a deep and genuine rest- calm and bright and silent of primate hierarchy one-one-upmanship. We feel like something is very wrong in, say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) the people of Whoville there are hollow gift-givers and no suspension of manipulative pecking-order gaming is observed. Likewise, a modern equivalent,** only 51 years old, is Snoopy’s Christmas (1967) and the key moment that always made my heart thump and experience chills were the words…”on some other day.”
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out, “Merry Christmas, my friend”The Baron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they’d meet on some other day.
Our society needs this in order to survive, as annual continual proof that we are not simply materialistic status-seekers and there is brotherhood and integrity and peace as our first priority. Especially towards children. In these days of high consumerism and shallow gift-giving we need it more than ever to redeem and glue our society together. Some 2000 years ago the Christians wove that pre-existing practise into a religion. Some 200 years ago two musicians wove it into a quintessential song. And that’s Silent Night.
¹ Silent Night is the song that brokered the Christmas Truce of 1914 on the Western Front. The truce is in perfect alignment with this spirit and this song and a high water mark for a Dignity Culture resonating almost perfectly with the calm, bright, heavenly peace
* I am not the first to think so; Ref. Mark Seifert
** Snoopy’s Christmas is particularly resonant with New Zealanders for some reason and doesn’t enjoy the same popularity elsewhere
Image ref. Silent Night chapel; Smithsonian Magazine