“Austria’s peace message to the world”

On the national exhibition “200 years Silent Night! Holy Night!”

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural journalist, Fruthwilen TG

Franz Xaver Gruber composing in Arnsdorf with Joseph Mohr, coloured lithograph by Franz Kulstrunk, around 1920 (Edition Tyrol). (Illustration from the
accompanying book)

The Christmas carol “Silent Night! Holy Night” sung in many languages worldwide celebrates its 200th birthday.

A song of hope on peace in hard times

It was born during hard times. People in Austria and Bavaria suffered for more than 20 years in the Napoleonic Wars. At the beginning of the 19th century French war troops were in the country, poverty and violent crime were part of everyday life in Austria. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) led to a new order in Europe, which also affected Salzburg, Tyrol and Upper Austria. As from 1816, after changing of power relations Salzburg no longer belonged to Bavaria, but to Imperial Austria. In this situation of historical upheaval, the song strengthened the hope of togetherness, justice and peace and was intended to help people and countries to unite in mutual goodwill.
Austria will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the beautiful song, its genesis and history of impact at nine places worth seeing and in museums with exhibitions and events until 3 February 2019. In this context, a richly illustrated musicological publication was published “Stille Nacht. Das Buch zum Lied” by Thomas Hochradner  and Michael Neureiter (Ed.) (ISBN 978-3-7025-0865-4). Founded as an association, the “Stille-Nacht-Gesellschaft” (Silent-Night-Society) was particularly proactive and has also published the “Stille-Nacht-Wegbegleiter” (Silent-Night-Guide).
It is the first decentralised regional exhibition in Salzburg, Oberndorf, Arnsdorf, Hallein, Hintersee, Wagrain, Mariapfarr, Hochburg-Ach and Fügen in the Zillertal. In most places, visitors can visit a “Silent--Night-Museum”, stroll along a peace trail designed for the exhibition or visit a special exhibition in the “Salzburg Museum Neue Residenz”, which was thematically designed according to the six song verses. At an international conference in St. Virgil, Governor Wilfried Haslauer recalled Salzburg’s commitment to be “ambassador of the idea of peace”.  At the conference a variety of aspects of “200 years of peace message uniting the people” were discussed under the motto “culture(s) of peace”. The exhibition is accompanied by the book “Stille Nacht 200. Geschichte. Botschaft. Gegenwart” (Silent Night 200. History. Message. Presence).

Christmas and peace carol as UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage

The pleasant events make it clear that the people not only have a very close relationship to this people-uniting carol with the Christmas message of the birth of Christ, but that the carol is sung across all borders of religions and cultures worldwide. It has since been translated into 300 languages, interpreted in a variety of artistic ways and included in the Immaterial Cultural Heritage of UNESCO in 2011. The National Exhibition and the “Austria’s peace message to the world” focus not only on the creators and their biographies, but also on beautiful cultural landscapes, places and museums. The lyrics, originally a poem with six verses and the title “Silent Night, Holy Night”, were written in 1816 by the Salzburg priest Joseph Mohr and two years later musically set to music by the Upper Austrian teacher Franz Xaver Gruber. He composed the deeply human melody in D major for two singing voices with guitar accompaniment. It was first chanted by Mohr and Gruber on 24 December 1818 at the end of the Christmas Mass. The song then went around the world.

Insights into the biographies of the two song writers

At the various exhibition venues, the visitor is introduced to the biographies of the two creators of the song. “Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg on 11 December 1792 as an illegitimate child and was baptised in the Salzburg Cathedral. A cathedral vicar”, so the introductory text to the national exhibition, “recognised the abilities of the young man and helped him to become a priest. His first position was in Mariapfarr, where in 1816 he wrote the text of the song. In 1817 he moved to Oberndorf, where he met Franz Xaver Gruber and the fruitful cooperation began. On Christmas Eve 1818 the world-famous song was heard in the church of St. Nikola.” In the Salzburg Museum and the Oberndorf Silent-Night-Museum, visitors can gain an insight into the work of the two personalities, the creation of the song, the included message of peace and its dissemination throughout the entire world. In the Silent-Night-Museum in Hallein you can meet the composer Franz Xaver Gruber on theme walks and by a visit to the museum. From 1835 to 1863 he “stayed with his family in the Salinenstadt and worked as a choirmaster, as an organist of the city parish church and as a foundation administrator”. Here he composed over 90 masses in addition to the Christmas carol. “The ‘Halleiner Liedertafel 1849’, founded by him and his son Franz, still exists today.” Gruber died in 1863 and found his last resting place in Hallein. The F. X. Gruber memorial house in Hochburg-Ach, with a newly designed path of peace which leads to Oberndorf, takes visitors back to the life of Franz Xaver Gruber, son of a peasant linen weaver family.
You can also learn more about the composer in the Arnsdorf Silent-Night-Museum: “From 1807 to 1829 Gruber worked as a teacher, sacristan and organist in Arnsdorf. It was the first position of the young teacher who, soon after entering service, married the widow of his predecessor.” The place has the oldest still used school building in Austria. Gruber must have composed the melody here. The traditional schoolroom suggests investigating the question of how the school was like at the beginning of the 19th century under teacher Franz Xaver Gruber. At that time, learning was carried out so well with the simplest ways and means, with large classes and without professionalised pedagogy that admirable building-up work was possible in all areas of the country.
Mariapfarr is a famous place of pilgrimage with a Silent-Night-Museum, which was newly designed for the anniversary year and shall commemorate the heyday of pilgrimage as well. The purpose of religious pilgrimages is to find inner peace, reflection and orientation. Here the young priest Joseph Mohr wrote the text for the Christmas carol. It is also the birthplace of his father and Mohr’s first office. In 1827, he moved to Hintersee. The village had only 272 inhabitants at that time. The position as a priest was financially poorly endowed. “Yet he tried to support the poor. According to tradition, he has passed on firewood of the parish and has purchased and given away meat from poachers. He also took special care of the children’s education.” This is an impressive example of how the church built up schools, hospitals and social institutions. After moving to Wagrain in 1837, Mohr also took care of the church, pastoral care, care of the poor, and education until his death in 1848. To his initiative, Wagrain owed the construction of a school building”. The Silent-Night-Museum is located in the “Pflegerschlössl”, where visitors can enjoy the song melody in numerous languages and instrumentalisations or get to know Christmas dishes from all over the world.
In Fügen Castle in Tyrol, the notes of the Christmas carol were found in the luggage of organ builder Carl Mauracher, who was on his way to Zillertal. According to oral tradition, Silent Night! Holy Night! has already been sung in 1819 and three years later on the occasion of the visit of Emperor Franz Josef I. and Tsar Alexander I. of Russia in the castle of Count Dönhoff. “Tyrolean traveling vendors, jokers, dancers and singing families – predominantly from the Zillertal – spread this and many other songs and the alpine culture to the USA and St. Petersburg.” The special exhibition in the castle shows the worldwide dissemination of the Christmas carol in more than 30 rooms. This cultural peace initiative of Austria is very meritorious. It makes the longing for peace and the manifold cultural contribution of the people obvious. It is to be hoped that the musical message of peace will sound around the globe.    •

Further information: www.landesausstellung2018.at, stillenacht(at)salzburg.gv.at, www.stillenacht.at