The First Performance of ‘Silent Night’

A recital took place at the church of St Nicholas in Oberndorf in Salzburg, on the evening of 24 December 1818.

Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. The Chapel stands on the site of the former St. Nicholas's Church. Image: Wiki Commons/Holger Uwe Schmitt.

Silent Night, or Stille Nacht in its original German, is one of the best known songs in the world, but few know anything of its authors.

Its lyrics were written in 1816 by a somewhat loose-living Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr. On Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr – then at St Nicholas in Oberndorf in Salzburg – handed the words to Franz Gruber, the church’s organist, and asked him to write a melody for two voices, accompanied by a guitar, for that same evening. 

There is no evidence to support the myth that Gruber was inspired by the recent death of his child, nor that the song was first played on guitar because the church organ wasn’t working.

The song’s wider fame is happenstance. The Strassers, a family of travelling glovemakers from the Tyrol, who sang folk songs as a side line, championed it. By 1832, their performance of the carol was well known enough to be requested in the Leipzig press. Another Tyrolean singing family, the Rainers, then took it to the United States, singing it in front of Alexander Hamilton’s tomb on Christmas Day 1839.

Mohr and Gruber were both by now forgotten. It wasn’t until 1854 that their work was recognised. For Mohr it was too late: he died in December 1848.