Just a few miles northwest of Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the town of Oberndorf. Towering over the town was the bell tower of St. Nicholas’s Church. The church and bell tower were visible from anywhere in town. People for miles around could hear the bell calling them to worship.
St. Nicholas’s Church was equipped with a pump organ. In the days before electricity, the organist sat on a stool and pumped foot petals, alternating between the right and left feet, which were connected to a set of bellows. The bellows increased the air pressure in the organ’s drum. The organist pulled out knobs called stops, which adjusted the volume and tone of the organ. (The phrase “pull out all the stops” derived from pump organs, and “pulling out all of the stops” meant the organ played at its highest volume and fullest tone.) The organist pressed the black and white keys on a keyboard similar to a modern piano or organ. The keys released air which passed over reeds and created different tones based on the length of the reed.
In 1816, thirty-year-old Franz Xavier Gruber, a teacher in a neighboring town, became the organist at St. Nicholas’s Church. In the late Fall of 1818, Franz noticed a hissing, wheezing sound coming from the bellows of the old organ. The bellows were leaking. Each time Franz played the organ, the hissing grew louder and the wonderful tones of the organ grew quieter. The leak worsened until the organ would no longer make any sound other than a hiss. Franz and Joseph Mohr, the assistant to the priest of St. Nicholas’s Church, sent for Karl Mauracher, an organ-builder from Fügen, a small town about one hundred miles southwest of Oberndorf in the Zillertal valley. The valley was renowned for its many families who built the best quality instruments and played them just as well.
Karl gathered his hand tools and began the slow trip to Oberndorf in a horse drawn wagon. Several days later, Karl arrived at St. Nicholas’s Church and assured the organist that he would have the organ repaired in time for the Christmas Eve Advent service. He planned to have the organ repaired in time for him to make the several-day trip back to Fügen in time for Christmas. However, as he inspected the organ more thoroughly, he determined that the organ needed more than mending, it needed a total refurbishment. Karl worked on the delicate instrument as quickly as he could, but he was a perfectionist. As it neared the date for him to leave so he could arrive in Fügen by Christmas, it began to snow. It snowed until the wagon trails were impassable. Karl’s work on the organ was going slower than anyone, especially Karl, had expected. He knew he would not be home for Christmas, but he tried to complete the organ in time for the Christmas Eve service. He worked in the short days of winter from early morning until late into the night. On Christmas Eve morning, Karl told Franz and Joseph the bad news. The organ refurbishment would not be completed in time.
Franz and Joseph searched through their sheet music for something suitable to perform without the pump organ at the service. Nothing seemed to satisfy them. In desperation, Franz quickly came up with a melody. Joseph listened to Franz’s melody, picked out the chords on a guitar, and provided lyrics to fit. They rehearsed the song later that afternoon until they were comfortable with its arrangement, then they rehearsed the song with the choir.
Karl had become friends with several members of St. Nicholas’s Church and decided to go to the Christmas Eve Advent service. During the service, Joseph and Franz began to play and sing their new song. Joseph played the guitar and sang tenor and Franz sang bass. The choir joined in on the choruses. Everyone seemed to enjoy the song, especially Karl. He asked Joseph and Franz if he could get a copy of the song to take home with him, and they obliged.
A few days later, Karl completed the refurbishment of the pump organ and returned to Fügen with his copy of Joseph’s and Franz’s new song. The following year, Karl convinced a local family of singers, the Rainers, to perform the song at their Christmas Eve service. The congregation loved the song and the Rainers added it to their repertoire.
In 1822, Ferdinand I, the Hapsburg Emperor, and Czar Alexander I of Russia spent Christmas in Fügen Castle. During their stay, the Rainers performed several songs including the song Franz and Joseph had written. Ferdinand and Alexander were impressed by the Rainers and made arrangements for them to perform on a European tour of royal courts. The highlight of each show was their performance of Franz’s and Joseph’s song, which they saved until last. They performed the song in London and the audience was as enthusiastic as any the Rainers had encountered even though the song had not yet been translated into English.
Within a few years, the Rainers had forgotten who had written their most popular song. Rumors persisted that the song must have been written by Mozart or some other renowned musical genius. Finally, a special commission from the Prussian court dispelled the rumors and learned that Joseph and Franz were the true authors of the special song that we still sing each year at Christmas time. Had it not been for the incredible sequence of events mentioned above, we would never have heard one of the most popular Christmas carols of the past two hundred years, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English translation is “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
- The Bangor Dialy News, December 24, 1973, p.20.
- The Windsor Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), December 18, 1986, p.27.
- YouTube.com. “Mrs Flewwelling Explains – How to Play a Pump Organ.” Accessed November 24, 2020. https://youtu.be/iBXV8Aol_wo.