Category Archives: music

The Story Behind “Silent Night”

The story behind Silent Night is part legend and part truth. We don’t know every detail, but we know some main facts that are undisputed. I hope you enjoy reading about the story behind one of the greatest loved Christmas carols.

Orberndorf, Austria* had gone through some very difficult times in nearly every way. The Napoleonic Wars has taken their toll, having only ended 3 years before. Due to the wars, land was divided and the city was cut in half. Its new border was the river just south; it was the river that had delivered salt, one the main trades of Orbendorf to various parts of Austria*. During the war the salt trade had declined and it got even worse when the city divided. An economic depression had struck the city. To make matters worse, that same Salzach River has recently flooded and the moisture seemed to have gotten to the church’s (St. Nicholas Church–how appropriate) pipe organ, rusting it shut.

December 23, 1818 was upon the people. It was evident that there would be no Christmas music for Midnight Mass the next night. There simply was no time to have the organ fixed. Legend tells us that the priest at St Nicholas, Father Mohr was about to head home that evening when one of the parishioners (a carpenter) came in from the cold excitedly informing Mohr that the carpenter’s wife had a baby. He asked if Father Mohr would come bless the newborn baby, and Mohr was happy to oblige.

After blessing the new born infant, he kissed him on the forehead and uttered, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” As he walked home from the humble cottage, a poem began to form in his mind. By the time he got home he knew he had to write the words immediately.

What we know is that staying up all night, Father Mohr penned the words of Stille Nacht. Some would say that the poem was already two years old by this time. It could be that it was and additions were made, that it was slightly edited, or simply just found (remember the story above is part of the legend). However there was no music as the organ was not working. He took the poem to his organist, Franz Gruber, a local school teacher who took the poem and put it to music. Unbeknownst to the parishioners, as Midnight Mass started, without music, A guitar began to strum. Father Mohr and Franz Gruber began to sing for the first time ever, the wonderful carol. The original tempo was much more upbeat than we play it today. That, along with the reality of having music at the Midnight Mass, caused the people to rejoice, applaud, and have a very happy Christmas.

The original version in Silent night had six verse, but it was cut to three when translated to English. Bishop Young did the original three verses (1, 6, and 2) in 1859; it was not until 2007 that William C. Egan translated the latter three (3, 4, 5). Here is the song in its entirety (as we know it, and then with the extra verses)

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 Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, 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!

Silent night! Holy night!
Here at last, healing light
From the heavenly kingdom sent
Abundant grace for our intent
Jesus, salvation for all
Jesus, salvation for all.

Silent night! Holy night!
Sleeps the world in peace tonight
God sends his son to earth below
A child from whom all blessings flow
Jesus, embraces mankind
Jesus, embraces mankind.

Silent night! Holy night!
Mindful of mankind’s plight
The Lord in heaven on high decreed
From earthly woes we would be freed
Jesus, God’s promise for peace
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

*originally written as Germany.

Music: the Great Divider

A few years ago I was taking a seminary class in which I was assigned to read James White’s The King James Only Controversy.  I would highly recommend that book to anyone who is interested in understanding why much of the English speaking church has gone away from the King James, and why the claim is made that more modern translations are more reliable and accurate.  In that course and book it was explained that the last hundred years was not the only time in history where translations were a big deal.  When Jerome translated the Greek into Latin there was an uproar in the church.  Of course, we know the stories about the Reformation and men like Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, Luther, etc.

While there is still a small group within the church that makes a big deal about the King James Version being the right and good translation, most Christians have moved on.  Many have set their sights on music.  This controversy over music is not new, I know.  In some ways it has been going on for what seems like forever.  But the controversy over music has taken a dangerous turn since the 60s especially, when the Jesus Movement took off.  The precursors to the modern praise and worship songs took root.  The older generation was leery of them while the younger people loved them.  Nothing has changed much.  It wasn’t long before music which once brought people together (think “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) was now dividing churches and families.  This wasn’t much different than what was going on in the homes of the people with “that rock music” (or if you remember The Flintstones: “Bug Music”).

Back in the day, churches would often split over music, which is no better reason for splitting than division over the color of carpet.  In fact, it has the same root.  If there is a division in the church over the color of the carpet, who is to blame?  Is it not both sides?  This side wants blue and the other wants burgundy.  Neither side will compromise because the color of the carpet is not about God; it’s about color, or to be even more honest: it’s about them.  It’s what they like.  It’s about what they are comfortable.  It’s about what they will have to live with for the next 30 years until the church splits over the next carpet color.

See; it’s not that different from music is it?  The issue behind the music is not so much about God, as it is about the person in the seat.  It’s about what they like.  It’s about the music with which they are comfortable.  It’s about what they will have to sing for the next 30 years.  The older people don’t like the new music, and so they refuse to sing.  The younger people don’t like the older music, so they refuse to sing.  I have visited churches where I look around and see the older generation belting out the hymns, but look like they just sucked on a lemon when the p&w songs are sung.  But the exact opposite will happen with the younger generation.  Eyes are rolled, arms are crossed.

As I said, in the past churches would split. At some point, churches decided to simply go to two services–one traditional and one contemporary.  In my opinion, the church is still divided.  It is still split.  How sad would this solution be if it were about carpet?  The 8:00 service will be the burgundy service.  After that the janitorial crew will remove all the stacking chairs, roll up the burgundy carpet, roll out the blue carpet, and reset the chairs, just in time for the 10:30 service.  That’s not unity.  That’s selfishness on display.

What I believe the problem to be with the younger generation is that they are myopic while the older generation is nostalgic.  There is the sense of newness and a sense of fondness.  But often not a sense of glory.  There is not a biblical sense of what music is to be, and what the church’s mission is to be.

Music is about God’s glory.  “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:18-21, ESV).

There is a lot to unpack there, and I don’t have the time to go into it fully, and you probably are already wondering when this blog is going to end.  So let me give some bullet points:

  • As believers we should be filled with the Spirit.  (more on this below)
  • We are to sing using a variety of music and musical styles
  • Our songs are to and for the Lord, and to and for each other (thus it is not my job to look out for what I like, but my brothers and sisters within the body to do so)
  • When we sing, it should be an expression of the heart
  • We are to submit to each other (again, not my job to look out for me, but for my brothers and sisters, and vice versa)
  • Our submission is not about music, and not about our fellow believer so much as it is about revering Christ.

Music, then, should be the great uniter, not the great divider.  It should cause each fellow believer to think more about the person sitting next to them, than about themselves.  How great would the gap between generations close if the older generation demanded new songs so that the younger generation could sing from their hearts, while the younger generation demanded older hymns so that their brothers and sisters of previous generations could sing from their hearts?

As with Paul, I “urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:1-3, ESV).  Notice that Paul wrote that the unity is not unity of music or the unity of a church building or sanctuary.  The unity is that of the Spirit.  So when Paul wrote in Ephesians 5 that we are to be filled with the Spirit, we see this being displayed in unity with one another.  How do we find that unity?  By submitting to one another.  It is no longer about me and my likes, but about you and what will help you sing from the heart.  May we remember, love, “does not insist on its own way,” (1 Corinthians 13:5, ESV).