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” by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber
Great things can come from sudden reverses. Consider the legend of the Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” On Christmas Eve, 1818, in the little Alpine village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria, final preparations for midnight services were underway at the church, coincidentally-named “Church of St. Nicholas,” when it was suddenly discovered that the organ had been damaged. Some say this was caused by flooding from the nearby river, which had rotted the wooden interior of the instrument. Others blame hungry mice for chewing through its leather bellows. Regardless of the cause, the organ was inoperable.
Knowing how incomplete a Christmas Eve service would be without music, the young priest, Joseph Mohr, and the organist, Franz Gruber, resolved, in the few short hours remaining before midnight, to write a Christmas song which could be accompanied by the guitar, their only other available musical instrument.
As the story goes, while Gruber worked on the melody, Mohr walked out into the evening air, seeking lyrical inspiration. There, in the beautiful silent night, he was reminded of another such starlit night in Bethlehem almost 2,000 years before. Suddenly, the words came to him.
The combined musical effort of Mohr and Gruber, “Stille nacht” (“Silent Night”), which they sang as a duet with guitar, was well-received that Christmas. Thereafter, the song was forgotten until 1825, when repairman Carl Maraucher, working on the organ–once again in disrepair–discovered the manuscript in the church loft. He took the music home with him, ultimately giving it to a local singing group, the Strasser Sisters, for their Tyrolean folk music repertoire. Within a few years, the hymn had been introduced throughout the world by traveling troupes of folk singers.
Today, “Silent Night” is perhaps the best-loved of all Christmas carols. It is sung on every continent, in over 300 languages and dialects, from German to Swahili. Because of its universality, this hymn has a unique potential to promote peace in the world. An example of this took place during the Christmas truce of World War I, December 24, 1914, when English and German soldiers came together to sing “Silent Night.” It was the one song known and revered by those on both sides of the conflict.
If the organ had not been damaged that fateful night in 1818, this beautiful carol might never have been written, and the world would have been deprived of its magnificent inspiration and potential for good.
Sometimes in life, our carefully-laid plans go awry because of unexpected circumstances, and a different course of action has to be improvised. In these instances, it is comforting to know that, as in the story above, such an impromptu effort may prove to be even more worthwhile than that which was originally intended.