After 200 Years, ‘Silent Night’ Still Quiets the Soul

Simplicity is key to the 200-year longevity of the Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” said professor emeritus of church music, Michael Hawn, at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.

ABOVE: SMU students conclude the campus’ Celebration of Lights by singing “Silent Night.” (Photo by Hillsman S. Jackson)

“Silent Night’ doesn’t try to do too much; it focuses on a moment,” said Hawn, an expert on the history of hymns. “I like to think of it as a painting that is gradually being sketched out.”

The hymn was first performed in 1818 on Christmas Eve at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. Legend has it that the hymn was composed as the church’s priest, Rev. Joseph Mohr, scrambled to find music to replace the church’s broken organ, silenced because mice had chewed through its bellows. He wrote the lyrics and composer Franz Xaver Gruber set them to music for a guitar.

As a historian, Hawn is not so sure about the role of the mice, but confirmed that the carol was written in short order for guitar, “a providential choice.”

“The guitar is a much more intimate instrument,” he said. “It helps create the gentle feel of the song, a contrast to other carols, like ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ or ‘Joy to the World.’”

“Silent Night” continues to appeal for another reason, Hawn said.

“We are weary. ‘Silent Night’ sounds like a lullaby, and speaks of heavenly peace.”

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