The Stories Of Two Christmas Classics

This is a pair of tales well suited to Christmas Eve, but I do hope few of us will be tending to our electronic tethers on such a day, though many will be, of course. Whatever one makes of the religious significance of the day, we all need a day off now and then, and these days most of our holidays seem somehow to involve some work. So relax, and enjoy the day if you can. In the spirit of the season, I offer the following tales of the unusual origins of two Christmas Classics. True, it’s fairly long, but many a good tale suffers when abbreviated, so here goes:

Surely it can come as no surprise that many well-known and greatly-loved Christmas carols received their first performance on Christmas Eve. I feel fairly certain that most all of us have, at one time or another, heard the famous and wonderful tale of how Silent Night was composed 200 years ago come this Christmas Eve under stressful circumstances on Christmas Eve of 1818 in the tiny hamlet of Oberndorf, Austria by the parish priest, Josef Mohr, and the church organist, Franz Gruber. But it bears repeating:

Stille Nacht, “Silent Night”, a simple, lullaby-like melody, may be the most beloved Christmas song in all the world. It has been translated into more than 200 languages, and it has been played and sung in almost limitless variety, from soloists on penny-whistles to massed symphony orchestras, sung by small children learning their first song or by famous artists at the top of their careers. And the powerful appeal of Silent Night comes through time and time again, no matter the presentation. (Well, personally, I draw the line at those irritating “musical” Christmas cards with out-of-tune, 7-note range straining to play Silent Night on a tiny, tinny piezo-electric speaker, and which, thankfully, seem to have been eclipsed by superior technology … but I digress …)

In a tale that might have been written by Horatio Alger, the creation of Silent Night features no famous composers, no publishers of widely read musical periodicals, no locally famous poets, and no well-known singers to give the premiere. The story is, in fact, as plain and unadorned as the beautiful melody and simple words of the song itself.

A few facts about Silent Night are now clearly known: the original German words were written by Josef Mohr, curate of the tiny parish church in Oberndorf, Austria. Fittingly, the church was dedicated to Saint Nicholas! The melody was composed by Franz Gruber, an organist and music teacher in a nearby village. The song was first performed for midnight mass at the little church in Oberndorf, accompanied only by guitar, Christmas Eve of 1818. The graceful melody was composed by Gruber in a matter of a few hours after Mohr had approached him early in the day on Christmas Eve. After almost two centuries of digging, these facts consistently bear up to scrutiny.

It was not always so. For decades the authorship of the song was unknown, and there was a great deal of serious speculation that the touching melody must have been created by a widely known musical genius such as Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. The lyrics were thought to be a Tyrolean folk song. This misunderstanding arose because sometime about 1820 or 1821, master organ builder Karl Mauracher journeyed to Oberndorf to maintain and expand the organ in the small parish church. During his time in Oberndorf, Mauracher either heard or simply read Stille Nacht. In any case, when he returned to his home in the Ziller Valley, he took with him a copy of the words and music, very likely with the permission of Father Mohr.

In the Ziller Valley, as elsewhere in the Tyrol, there were many families who made their living as travelling singers (one thinks of the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound Of Music fame.) Mauracher shared Stille Nacht with some of these clans, and it quickly began to spread across the Tyrol, and then across the German-speaking heart of Europe. The first recorded performance was in Leipzig in 1832, and the song was simply identified as a “Tiroler Lied,” a Tyrolean song. As the song became more and more popular, people began to speculate about its origins. Everyone wanted to know who had written this wonderful song.

By the mid-1830s, French and Italian translations of the work appeared. In 1839, the song was first sung in the United States near Trinity Church by Wall Street in lower Manhattan. In the 1840s, the King of Prussia was so moved by the song that he launched a search for its authors. Several people claimed to have written the work, but for various reasons these claims were obviously unsupportable. Respected academics now entered into the speculation. Josef Mohr died in 1848 without ever learning of the quest to discover the authors of Stille Nacht. When friends informed Franz Gruber that no less a personage than the King of Prussia wanted to find out who had written Silent Night, he penned a letter to the authorities in Berlin describing the origins of the song and asserting his authorship. Sadly, Gruber’s claim was dismissed as so many others had been. The legitimate author’s clam had been obscured by a sea of false claimants.

But soon, the researchers who followed up on the claims were able to verify the details of Gruber’s letter: names, dates, and locations all checked out. Karl Mauracher also revealed that he had copied the song in Oberndorf in 1820 or 1821. In 1854, after much debate, the authorship was finally fixed upon Gruber and Mohr, though some quarters continued to dispute the matter until an original manuscript copy of the music to Stille Nacht was discovered in 1997! The work is in Mohr’s hand, and his notation includes: “Melodie von Fra. Xav. Gruber.” This document has been confirmed to date from 1820 (it is not the first draft from 1818) and so it predates all other possible claimants’ versions, confirming beyond doubt Gruber and Mohr’s authorship.

But with the question of authorship finally settled, various myths grew up about the origins of the song, some more fanciful than others. The most common story concerns the supposed fact that on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1818, Father Mohr discovered that the organ of his church was broken beyond the abilities of local craftsmen to restore. The details in this tale can be amazingly precise; one version has the organ’s bellows being eaten away by mice! According to this tale, Father Mohr rushed to his friend Franz Gruber with a poem he dashed off for the occasion to have Gruber set it to music, and write it for guitar and choir.

Once Hollywood got hold of this basic legend, more details were added, with romances, scheming businessmen, and all sorts of stock characters populating the screen and television versions of the myth. Yet it is all so unnecessary: there is really no reason to add color to the story, for it stands by itself, in no need of adornment.

Josef Mohr said he wrote the words of Stille Nacht in 1816, before he had been posted to Oberndorf. Franz Gruber wrote that Mohr did indeed come to him the morning of Christmas Eve 1818 to ask if he could set his poem to music for guitar and choir. Gruber also wrote that he created the desired song in a matter of hours. There is no reason to doubt this account, and there is no mention of a broken organ or mice or any Hollywood trappings. The organ could have been out of order, of course, but no one now can say for sure. I suspect that part of the story arose from Karl Mauracher’s involvement. The song’s origin is no less moving, nor less inspiring, for the fact that Father Mohr simply loved guitar music.

To me it is rather inspiring that a young priest with no particular literary talent, and a small-town organist who was unknown outside his locality combined to create one of the best-loved and most widely performed, most frequently heard songs in all the world. Whatever inspired Mohr to pen the poem, and whatever inspired Gruber to devise so perfect a melody so quickly are now beyond our ability to know. But as I say, the story need no mythologizing; the truth stands on its own.


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’!

John Freeman Young, second Episcopal Bishop of Florida from 1867 until his death in 1885, created the English translation most widely sung today:


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.

Another well-loved Christmas carol has an equally unlikely and interesting history. This is the tale of how O Holy Night, came to be.

On 3 December 1847, the Curé (“cure-EH,” the pastor of the Church) of Roquemaure, a small wine-trading city on the banks of the river Rhone in the South of France, approached one of the town’s most reputable wine-traders, Placide Cappeau; Monsieur Cappeau had been the official inspector of wines as well as mayor of the town and he had a local reputation as a poet. The Curé, Eugene Nicolas, (appropriately, we find “Nicholas” again and again in these tales!) was in charge of the local parish church in Roquemaure. He had an unusual request for Cappeau: he wished for Cappeau to create a poem celebrating the birth of Jesus, a poem which could be incorporated into the upcoming Christmas services.

This request was unusual because Cappeau was a decidedly odd choice to seek a Christmas poem from: he was a “Voltairean” (we might call him a secular humanist today) who rarely attended services, and who entertained great questions about religion in general and Christianity in specific. His reputation as a poet, however, encouraged Père Nicolas to approach him. Cappeau was initially disinclined to honor the Curé’s request. He felt thoroughly unqualified to undertake such a task. But a few days later, as he journeyed from Roquemaure to Paris, on the road between Macon and Dijon, he experienced a sense of inspiration and began writing. By the time his coach had reached Paris, Cappeau was convinced that he had a poem that was worthy of a great musical setting.

Cappeau had made the acquaintance of eminent civil engineer Pierre Laurey when Laurey and his wife Emily resided in Roquemaure during the construction of a suspension bridge across the Rhone. The Laureys lived in Paris where Emily Laurey was a singer of some skill who was well known to the famed comic opera composer Adolphe Adam. Adam had originally aimed to become a composer of serious opera, but his attempts had met with no success, while his humorous operas and ballets such as Le Postillon de Longjumeau, (1836) and Giselle (1841) earned him both fame and fortune. His reputation for devising light-hearted and spirited tunes grew, even as he more strongly desired to create a more profound legacy.

Cappeau arranged to be introduced to Adam. He hoped to pursuade Adam to set his poem, Minuit Chrétiens (“Midnight, Christians”) to suitable music. Adam and Cappeau met, it is said, in a Parisian Cafe about six days before Christmas, 1847. Their conversation was not recorded at the time, and the later accounts of it differ. But a few details remain consistent, and seem believable enough to be convincing: Adam admired Cappeau’s verses, and approved their sentiments, but he insisted that he could not be the one to set such stirring words to music. For one thing, Adam pointed out, he was a composer of light, diverting fare, and not one to create powerful, religious music. Too, Adam insisted that he was too busy to undertake even a small additional commission at the time. It is sometimes alleged, that, finally, Adam felt he had an overwhelming argument that could trump any persuasion that Cappeau attempted: Adam pointed out that he was himself Jewish, and did not celebrate Christmas nor did he acknowledge Christ as the Redeemer and Son of God.

This is a truly fascinating irony, and it makes for such a wonderfully good tale that it is often repeated, and I myself have repeated it in previous postings of this story. Unfortunately, I had propagated an apparent myth. A splendid notion is vaporized by a persistent fact: Adolphe Adam was buried with a Catholic service in the Cemetery of Montmarte in Paris; his obituary in La France Musicale of May 4, 1856, reads:

Les obsèques de M. Adolphe Adam auront lieu lundi 5 mai, à 11 heures, en l’église de Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, sa paroisse.

(The funeral of Monsieur Adolphe Adam will be held Monday, May 5, in the church of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, his parish.)

It is also noteworthy that neither of Adam’s two memoirs make any mention of Jewish heritage or Jewish faith. His near contemporary biographer, Arthur Pougin, makes no mention of Adam’s religious affiliations in his 1877 book about Adam, nor does Baker’s Biographical Dictionary Of Musicians in the 3rd edition of 1919. Since these sources are both closer in time to Adam, and come from an era when a person’s religious association was generally considered far more “newsworthy” than it usually is today, it seems odd, if Adam were Jewish, that all of these sources would make no mention of it. And the 1995 edition of The Oxford Companion To Music is similarly silent. So I conclude, based on a good deal of follow-up research, that Adam was not, in fact, Jewish.

So how did this fable start? Well, for one thing, it just makes for a darned good, ironic tale. But another, somewhat more chilling possibility exists. According to The Oxford Companion To Music, in the 1930s, one French bishop after another banned Adam’s setting of Cappeau’s poem – known in in France as Un Cantique de Noel – from their sees. These bishops were among the most reactionary churchmen of their day, and at a time when Fascism was firmly established at France’s three major borders, it seems they were capitalizing on a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment to ban a tune which had “vulgar” origins. Claiming that Adam was Jewish simply furthered their aims.

In any case, in 1847, Adam was somewhat reluctant to turn his talents to religious music, for he had no experience in the field. There was no way he could hope to compose an appropriate melody for Cappeau’s words. But Cappeau continued to press him, and he assured Adam that he had the gifts necessary to do justice to the poem. Apparently, this argument won over Adolphe Adam; in any case, he agreed to set Cappeau’s poem to music. Three days later, Adam had the finished drafts of Un Cantique de Noël, (simply: “A Song of Christmas”) ready for performance. Cappeau invited the Laureys to return to Roquemaure with him so that Emily could debut the new song at the Midnight Mass in Roquemaure. They joined him on his journey.

The premiere of Un Cantique de Noël, was an instant success. Word of the new and haunting Christmas song spread quickly through the South of France, and by Christmas of 1848, Un Cantique de Noël was being sung in Paris, and from Cherbourg to Grasse, Strasbourg to Toulon. One popular musical magazine declared that Cappeau and Adam had written “La Marseillaise religieuse,” a religious national anthem. The song was enthusiastically embraced in churches throughout France, and its popularity in France has never faded, though, strangely enough, as early as 1850, senior clerics in France were criticizing the song as being “unmusical” and “without religious spirit.”

One wonders how such a claim could be made:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance
En cette nuit qui nous donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur!

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
Where the God-made-man descends among us
To erase the original sin
And with his Father halts the damage.
The whole world expects in hope
On this night when we are given a savior.
People, on your knees, await your deliverance!
Christmas, Christmas, here comes the Redeemer!
Christmas, Christmas, here comes the Redeemer!

By 1856, a former Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, John Sullivan Dwight, had heard the beautiful song and he determined that it needed to be brought to America. Dwight was the founder and publisher of Dwight’s Journal Of Music, which would become the most influential musical publication in 19th Century America. As a leading music critic in the United States, Dwight continually looked for new music from Europe that would appeal to an American aesthetic. When he came upon Un Cantique de Noël, Dwight was sure he had discovered something that simply had to be published in America. As a Unitarian and ardent abolitionist, Dwight was especially moved by the words of the third verse of the song:

Le Rédempteur a brise toute entrave,
La Terre est libre et le Ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave,
L’amour unit ceux qu’enchainait le fer.

The Redeemer has broken every shackle,
The Earth is free and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where was not but a slave,
Love unites those whom iron enchains.

The familiar English words which we today know as O Holy Night are Dwight’s translation. Because he faithfully translated Cappeau’s anti-slavery sentiments, Dwight’s O Holy Night was unpopular in the South, and one large and influential Southern church convention officially forbade its use in their churches. This ban was formally lifted only within surprisingly recent memory, but was no more effective in Dixieland than it had been in France. The beauty of the song naturally endeared it to listeners despite its anti-slavery bent.

O Holy Night!

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy Name!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

Thus was written one of the most touching and beautiful of Christmas songs, by a most unlikely trio of an agnostic, a comic opera composer, and a Transcendentalist. That its authors were so diverse in no way detracts from the song and its message. Indeed, it seems to me, such a stunningly beautiful product of such an unlikely grouping makes the song and its sentiments all the more universal.


I had no idea of just how interesting the tale of O Holy Night was when I started researching it. I wondered, since Silent Night is so well-known, whether there might be something worth telling about O Holy Night. I quickly learned that Dwight was a Unitarian – I am always fascinated to find how much American Christmas music has been written by Unitarians – and I thought that was a possible point of interest. As I read further, I discovered that the tale was even more interesting than I had ever imagined.

Most descriptions of the history of this beloved Christmas carol are too brief to offer the depth that I have tried to provide. To learn the details of this tale, I had to look at many websites. There are really too many to list, but a search for “Cantique de Noel” and/or “O Holy Night” and/or “Adolphe Adam” and/or “Placide Cappeau” should provide ample data. However, to further fill in the details of the story I had to look into several French language websites. A search for “Minuit Chrétien” should provide a great deal of information. Any errors in the above details are most likely due to my own limitations in reading the French of these sites:

About Adam: “”

About Cappeau: “”

The translations contained herein are my doing; if there are mistakes or corrections that need to be made, I would gladly receive them. I have done my level best to provide an accurate and documentable account of this fascinating tale, and I would be pleased to ensure even greater accuracy. I had far rather be right than consistent!)

While there are several websites in both English and French which repeat the tale of Adam as Jewish, I cannot find one which offers independent verification (other than links to similarly undocumented sites!)

For more detail about Adam’s non-Jewishness, there are several reputable sources which make the tale implausible by complete absence of the topic; the ones I have referenced above are:

Adolphe Adam, Sa Vie, Ca Carriere: Ses Memoires Artistiques; Arthur Pougin, G. Charpentier – Paris, 1877; (Available on Google Books.)

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary Of Musicians, 3rd edition; Alfred Remy, ed.: G. Schirmer, 1919; (Available on Google Books.)

The Oxford Companion To Music, 10th edition; John Owen Ward, ed.: Oxford University Press, 1995; ISBN: 0193113066

Sources for Silent Night include the D’Aulaire’s 1994 article in the December edition of Reader’s Digest, the above mentioned Oxford Companion, and innumerable Christmas songbooks as well as numerous, well-documented websites, including Oberndorf’s informative official site which offers its presentation many languages:

About Oberndorf “”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

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