Sometimes, the sweetest songs are born in the saddest of times. Two hundred years ago, one such carol was born in an Austrian church. The small town of Oberndorf was recovering from the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and famine. Legend has it that a young Catholic priest, Joseph Mohr, asked his schoolteacher friend, Franz Gruber, to put a song he had written on the birth of Christ to music, a song that could be played on the guitar as the church organ was not working. Thus was born Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, which has since journeyed into the collective consciousness as one of the world’s most loved carols.
So intrinsic is it to the soundscape of Christmas, so impossible is it to think of the birth of Christ without its beatific notes, that 200 years seem too little a time for Silent Night to have been around. Unlike many carols, about Santa Clauses and jingling bells and mistletoe, Silent Night is a deeply Christian song; it paints a scene from Nativity and sings of the grace of God and his Son. It sings of a religious joy, and not the secular carnival that is contemporary Christmas. Originally written in German, Silent Night has, since then, travelled across countries and cultures, sung by as varied performers as Bing Cosby, Usha Uthup and Mariah Carey. During the Christmas truce of 1914 at Ypres, British and French soldiers are believed to have sung the carol — the only one they had in common — with their German rivals before they went back to slaughtering each other.
How a song finds its way into the rhythms of memory is as mysterious as the working of god and faith. But Silent Night is marked by a simplicity that is elemental to all cultures. This is a hymn to peace, shot through with the melancholic awareness of the fragility of all things human. But, above all, it sings, without noise and clamour, of the birth of hope.