Oldest Known Silent Night Manuscript Discovered
By Bill Egan
A "Silent Night" manuscript by Josef Mohr, who wrote the original words to this world- renowned carol, has been discovered in Salzburg. The existence of this manuscript was unknown until a volunteer at the citys Carolino Augusteum Museum casually mentioned that she had a framed manuscript of the world-famous carol handwritten by Mohr.
The discovery of this manuscript is of special significance since it is now the earliest known version of "Silent Night." The hymn was created on December 24, 1818, when Franz X. Gruber added music to a poem which Mohr had written two years earlier. The authentication of the Mohr arrangement also puts to rest some of the erroneous tales written by sentimental romantics to elaborate the circumstances surrounding the origin of "Silent Night." Many of these anecdotal stories claim that Mohr wrote the words on Dec. 24, 1818 in order to provide a guitar-accompanied carol for Midnight Mass since the organ in Oberndorfs St. Nicholas Church was not working. Others have attributed the melody to Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven rather than its real composer, Franz Gruber.The newly found manuscript bears the signature of Josef Mohr, in the lower left hand corner, followed by "1816" which shows that he wrote the lyrics before his assignment to the church in Oberndorf. (In 1816, the young curate, Mohr, as assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr in the southern area of the province of Salzburg.) In 1820, when he wrote this arrangement of Grubers melody, he placed the words, "Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber," in the upper right hand corner. This silences any doubts about who wrote the music for this world-famous carol.
Handwriting experts have determined that Mohrs arrangement of the Gruber melody was set down on this manuscript around 1820, after he departed Oberndorf. Mohrs "Silent Night" manuscript is currently part of an exhibition, "The Message of Music," at Palais Harrach in Vienna. The exhibition runs through April 1, 1997. Today, visitors to Austria can visit several sites connected with the two men who created "Silent Night." Opened for the first time in November 1996, there is the "Josef Mohr Birthplace Exhibition" at Steingasse 9, in the city of Salzburg. In nearby Arnsdorf, one can view the schoolhouse where Franz Gruber lived with his family and the church where he was the organist and choir director. About four miles away is the Silent Night Memorial Chapel and Museum. The chapel is located over the site of the nave of St. Nicholas Church which was torn down earlier this century. Every year on December 24, at 5 p.m. a special service is conducted here which ends with a rendition of "Silent Night" in its original format. South of the city of Salzburg is the charming, medieval town of Hallein where the "Franz Gruber Museum" is located in his former home. His grave can be visited outside in the courtyard across from the church where he was choir director. In the ski hamlet of Wagrain, one can attend services in the church where Josef Mohr preached and view his grave located in the churchyard across from the Josef Mohr School.
Arrangements to visit these sites can be made through your local travel agents with Salzburg Panaroma Tours. For further information contact the Austrian National Tourist Office, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110, phone (212) 944-6880 or, Fax (212) 730-4568.