Silent Night

Canada #2240 (2007)

Canada #2240 (2007)

The popular Christmas carol “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht in German) was first performed on December 24, 1818, at St. Nikola parish church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. The song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all-time. In 2011, it was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had written a peom he called “Stille Nacht” in 1816 from the town of Mariapfarr in the mountainous Lungau region south of Salzburg, the hometown of his father in the Salzburg Lungau region, where Joseph worked as a co-adjutor. Poor health forced him to move to Salzburg in the summer of 1817. After a short recuperation he began serving as an assistant priest at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, where he made the acquaintance of Franz Gruber, schoolteacher in neighboring Arnsdorf.

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1818,  Joseph Franz Mohr walked the three kilometers from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit his friend Franz Xaver Gruber in the neighboring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen. Mohr brought with him the six-stanza poem he had written two years earlier. He needed a carol for the Christmas Eve midnight mass that was only a few hours away, and hoped his friend, a school teacher who also served as the church’s choir master and organist, could set his poem to music. The church organ had broken down so Gruber produced a melody with guitar arrangement for the poem. Gruber composed the melody for Mohr’s “Stille Nacht” in just a few hours. The two men sang the carol for the first time at Christmas Mass in St Nicholas Church while Mohr played guitar and the choir repeated the last two lines of each verse.

Within a few years, arrangements of the carol appeared in churches in the Salzburg Archdiocese and folk singers from the Ziller Valley were taking the composition on tours around Europe. In later years, Gruber composed additional arrangements of the carol for organ and for organ with orchestra, as well as scores of other carols and masses, many of which are still in print and sung today in Austrian churches. The original manuscript has been lost. However, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers at around 1820. It shows that Mohr wrote the words in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, and shows that the music was composed by Gruber in 1818. This is the earliest manuscript that exists and the only one in Mohr’s handwriting. The first edition was published by Friese in 1833 in a collection of Four Genuine Tyrolean Songs,

In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church, New York City, published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses. The version of the melody that is generally used today is a slow, meditative lullaby or pastorale, differing slightly (particularly in the final strain) from Gruber’s original, which was a “moderato” tune in 6./8 time and siciliana rhythm. Today, the lyrics and melody are in the public domain.

Mohr’s German lyrics:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Young’s English lyrics:
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 Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

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.

The carol has been translated into about 140 languages. In Austria, “Stille Nacht” is considered a national treasure. Traditionally, the song may not be played publicly before Christmas Eve.

Scott #2240 is a self-adhesive booklet stamp released by Canada Post on November 1, 2007. Printed by lithography, the non-denominated stamp carried a face value of 52 cents and portrays Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus. The perforations are a serpentine die cut to a gauge of 13½. The stamp was issued in a booklet pane of six, the complete booklet comprising two panes.

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