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About Joseph Mohr

Austrian priest Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics for "Silent Night," arguably the most popular Christmas carol in history. Born in the city of Salzburg on December 11, 1792, Mohr was a man of humble origins; his single mother earned a meager income spinning and knitting, and his father, a soldier, simply boarded with the family and deserted them as soon as the pregnancy was discovered. Mohr grew up in abject poverty and, having been born out of wedlock, was something of an outcast. Luckily, he found a father figure in church choirmaster Johann Hiernle, who recognized the boy's musical aptitude and saw to it that he received a proper education. Having learned guitar, violin, and organ, Mohr chose a religious life; he entered the seminary and was ordained in 1815. He first served in the village of Mariapfarr, where his grandfather lived, and where he wrote the text of "Silent Night" (or "Stille Nacht") in 1816. Health problems forced a return to Salzburg in 1817, and upon his recovery, he transferred to the village of Oberndorf. There he befriended church organist Franz Xaver Gruber, who worked as a schoolteacher in neighboring Arnsdorf. Numerous legends have sprung up over the years concerning the genesis of "Silent Night," but the simplest and likeliest explanation seems to have been that Mohr simply wanted an original song that he could play on his favorite instrument, the guitar. On Christmas Eve, 1818, Mohr brought the text of "Silent Night" to Gruber, who set it to a slow, gentle melody. The song was performed the very next night at midnight mass in a simple arrangement for guitar and choir. Mohr only remained in Oberndorf until 1819, and spent the next few years shuttling between other villages; he was made pastor of the Hintersee parish in 1827, and later settled in the Alpine village of Wagrain, where he was buried following his death on December 4, 1848. In the meantime, "Silent Night" was discovered at Oberndorf by Karl Mauracher, an organ builder and repairman who took the song home with him. "Silent Night" was incorporated into the repertoires of two traveling folk choirs, and gradually spread into larger German-speaking cities en route to becoming Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV's favorite Christmas carol. It has since, of course, spread throughout the world and been recorded countless times by musicians of all genres. ~ Steve Huey