Thursday, December 3, 2020
Home News A carol a day: Silent Night

A carol a day: Silent Night

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We are repeating last year’s series about Christmas carols. This was first published on December 4, 2018. 

TODAY’S choice is Silent Night. Originally written in German as Stille Nacht, it is widely believed to be one of the carols which was sung by German and British troops during the 1914 Christmas truce, a series of unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front in the week leading up to Christmas Day when soldiers laid down their arms and emerged from their trenches to mingle and talk. Some exchanged small gifts such as tobacco or souvenirs such as helmets, and there were football games in no-man’s land. Several of these meetings ended with carol-singing. I can’t find a definitive account that Silent Night was sung but it seems highly likely since both sides would have known it. It is used as the track to the truce scene in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War. 

In December 1915, Allied commanders issued battle orders to forestall any repeat of the Christmas truce, but a small number of brief truces were recorded. By 1916 neither side was in the mood for fraternisation.

Stille Nacht had its origins in Austria but over the years the original manuscript was lost and it was variously attributed to Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. (The following account is repeated on umpteen websites but I could not find an original source for it, or where the manuscript was found.) A manuscript was discovered in 1995 in the handwriting of a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and dated by researchers at around 1820. It states that Mohr wrote the words of Stille Nacht in 1816 when he was assigned to a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria, and that shows that the music was composed by Franz Gruber, a schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf in 1818.

Bing Crosby’s 1935 version is the third best-selling single of all time, with about 30million sold. Here he sings it live on TV.

This performance is by the choir of Winchester Cathedral.

The carol has been translated into about 140 languages and and this slightly less conventional version in French is recommended by our commenter ‘Bernard from Bucks’.

You can read last year’s comments here.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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