The Carol that Stopped a War
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The Carol that Stopped a War

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When World War I erupted in 1914, soldiers on both sides were assured they would be home by Christmas to celebrate victory. That prediction proved false. The men on the front-lines did not get home for Christmas and the war dragged on for four years. During that time, 8,500,000 men were killed, with hundreds of thousands more dying from injuries.

The “war to end all wars” took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.

However, on Christmas Eve December, 1914, one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the war’s Western front. On the night of December 24, the weather abruptly became cold, freezing the water and slush of the trenches in which the men were bunkered. On the German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries reported the appearance of small lights, raised on poles or bayonets, to their commanding officers.

Although these lanterns clearly illuminated German troops, making them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more amazing, British officers saw, through binoculars, that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads, with lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: Germans, who celebrated Christmas on the eve of December 24, were extending holiday greetings to their enemies.

Within moments of that sighting, the British began hearing a few German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up all along the German line as other soldiers joined in, harmonising. The words heard were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” but British troops immediately recognised the melody as “Silent night, holy night” and began singing, in English, along with the Germans.

The singing of “Silent Night” quickly neutralised all hostilities on both sides. One by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into “no-man’s land,” a small patch of bombed-out earth between the two sides. So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers were prevented from objecting. An undeclared truce had erupted and peace had broken out.

Frank Richards was an eyewitness of this unofficial truce. In his wartime diary, he wrote: “We stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads, and two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them. They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans.”

Richards also explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English, with one saying how fed up he was with the war and how he would be glad when it was all over. His British counterpart agreed.

That night, enemy soldiers sat around a common campfire. They exchanged small gifts from their meagre belongings—chocolate bars, buttons, badges and small cans of processed beef. Men who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill were now sharing Christmas festivities and showing each other family snapshots.

The truce ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C I Stockwell, of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, recalled how, after a truly “silent night,”

he fired three shots into the air at 8:30 am on December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A German officer, who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the previous night, also appeared on the trench bank. They bowed, saluted and climbed back into their trenches. A few moments afterward, Captain Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air— and the war was on again.

The carol that briefly stopped World War I, “Silent Night,” is one of the most recognisable of Christmas songs— and one of the most popular pieces of holiday music. During December, it can be heard in shopping centres, churches and concert halls around the planet. Ironically, the world might never have got this piece of music had it not been for a major, last-minute crisis at a church in the tiny village of Oberndorf, Austria.

The year was 1818 and within the Church of St Nicholas, the mood was hardly one of joy that Christmas eve afternoon. Curate Joseph Mohr, 26, had just discovered that the organ was badly damaged. No matter how much he tried to pump the pedals, he could only bring out a scratchy wheeze from the aged instrument. By the time an organ-repair specialist could reach the church, Christmas would long be over. To the young pastor, a Christmas without music was unthinkable and unacceptable.

Mohr had a natural talent for music.

As a youth, he earned money singing and playing the violin and guitar in public. He put himself through university on money he earned as a performer.

His academic ability and musical talents captured the attention of a clergyman, who persuaded Mohr to enter the seminary. Ordained as a priest in 1815, Mohr was assigned to Oberndorf in 1817. There, he not only preached well but surprised parishioners by occasionally leading worship while strumming his guitar.

Now faced with a Christmas crisis, Mohr realised the only music for that evening would be led by guitar. He also knew that the traditional Christmas carols would not sound right on his string instrument, so he decided to produce something new. Thinking about Jesus’ modest birth almost 1900 years earlier, Mohr began writing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Using simple phrases, the young cleric felt inspired as he retold the story of Christ’s birth in six short stanzas.

For the music, Mohr turned to Franz Gruber, a friend more skilled at composing than he was. Gruber was a teacher at nearby Arnsdorf. Mohr visited Gruber and his large family at their modest living quarters above the school, where Mohr explained his dilemma. Handing over the six stanzas, Mohr asked if Gruber could compose music, to be accompanied by guitar, in time for that evening’s midnight service.

According to historians who pieced together the story, Gruber was struck by the innocence and beauty of Mohr’s words.

Quickly, he went to work on the musical composition.

With barely time for a rehearsal, the two agreed that Mohr would play his guitar and sing tenor while Gruber sang bass. Following each stanza, the church choir would join in on the refrain.

At midnight, parishioners filled St Nicholas’ church, expecting to hear the organist playing resounding notes of Christmas music. Instead, the church building was silent. Mohr explained their organ was out of action but that the worship service would include new music, prepared especially for the congregation.

With Mohr strumming the guitar, two voices sang and were joined by the choir in a four-part harmony. Mohr proceeded with the evening celebration.

Even without their organ, parishioners felt they had experienced a unique and memorable Christmas eve service.

The story of “Silent Night” almost ended that evening, as Mohr put the music away with no thought of using it again. It was simply a stopgap solution for a temporary problem. Mohr was transferred to another parish and, for several years, “Silent Night” was forgotten.

But the organ at St Nicholas continued to have problems and in 1825, the parish was forced to hire a master organ builder—Carl Mauracher—to reconstruct the instrument. While engaged in that task, Mauracher discovered the music left behind by Mohr and Gruber.

It’s universal simplicity impressed the organ builder and he asked permission to make copies of “Silent Night.”

With permission given, Mauracher began introducing the carol to musicians and audiences, all of whom were enchanted by the piece. Soon troupes of folk singers who regularly travelled all over Europe to perform musicals began adding “Silent Night” to their repertoires. Although the carol was causing an enormous stir across Europe, Gruber and Mohr remained unaware of the impact their music was creating. Penniless, Mohr died of pneumonia in 1848 at the age of 55. He never learned his song was spreading around the world.

On the other hand, Gruber first heard of the carol’s success in 1854, when the concertmaster for King Frederic William IV of Prussia began searching for its authors. When word reached Gruber, then 67, he sent a letter to Berlin, telling the origins of the song.

At first, few musical historians believed that two men from an obscure village could have developed such an exquisite piece of music. When Gruber died in 1863, his authorship was still challenged, although questions began to cease as historians confirmed that Gruber and Mohr were indeed the authors. That same year, John Freeman Young translated three stanzas of the carol into the English verses people still sing today.

Today, “Silent Night” is sung on every continent, in scores of languages ranging from the original German to Russian, from Swahili to Chinese. It has been performed by religious and secular choirs. Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley have recorded the song. Regardless of the language or the musical expression—operatic or country and western—those who sing and hear the carol experience similar profound feelings of joy and peace.

Consider the experience of Nien Cheng from Shangai, China. In August, 1966, at the beginning of the upheaval known as China’s Cultural Revolution, 51-year-old Cheng was arrested and remained imprisoned, in solitary confinement, for nearly seven years. Cheng had committed no crime but was charged with being an enemy of the state, because of her association with foreigners— especially British business executives. In her biography, Life and Death In Shanghai, Cheng describes how, one Christmas eve, her spirits were fortified and her hopes renewed by hearing “Silent Night.”

She writes, “When the newspaper stopped coming on December 2, I started to make light scratches on the wall to mark the passing days. By the time I had made twenty-three strokes, I knew it was Christmas eve. . . . While I was waiting in the bitter cold, suddenly, from somewhere upstairs, I heard a young soprano voice singing, at first tentatively and then boldly, the Chinese version of ‘Silent Night.’ The prison walls resounded with her song, as her clear and melodious voice floated in and out of the dark corridors. I was enraptured and deeply moved as I listened to her. I knew from the way she rendered the song that she was a professional singer, who had incurred the displeasure of the Maoists. No concert I had attended at Christmas in any year meant more to me than that moment, when I sat in my icy cell listening to ‘Silent Night,’ sung by another prisoner whom I could not see. As soon as she was confident that the guards were not there to stop her, the girl sang beautifully, without any trace of nervousness.

The prison became very quiet. All the inmates listened to her with bated breath.”

Joseph Mohr, the young priest, and Franz Gruber, his teacher friend, who first sang the carol nearly 200 years ago, would be pleased at the way their song lives.

Published in the December 2007 issue

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