Only by happy coincidence did the names of the true authors of the song “Silent Night” come to light-thirty-six years after they wrote it.
The story begins in 1818 in a church in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf. Shortly before Christmas Eve, a mouse ate a hole in the leather bellows of the church organ, effectively silencing it. The itinerant organ mender was not due in town for months, and music was needed for the Christmas Eve service. In three and one-half hours, Franz Gruber, the organist, composed music for a poem written by Josef Mohr, a priest. It began “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). On Christmas Eve, the two men sang their composition accompanied by a guitar and children’s chorus. They were a great success.
The following May, when the organ mender turned up, Gruber gave him a copy of the song, which the man then circulated in his travels. By 1831, thirteen years later, the Strasser family quartet was billing “Silent Night” one of their numbers, as a Tyrolean folk song by “authors unknown.”
Time went by, and soon the now-popular song was being attributed to several famous composers. In 1854, the leader of the king’s orchestra in Berlin wrote to the choir director of the Benedictine school in Salzburg, asking for a copy of “Silent Night” by Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous composer Franz Joseph Haydn. The choir director asked a student-who just happened to be Felix Gruber, Franz Gruber’s son-to find a copy. And you can guess the rest.