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Silent Night: The Story Behind The Christmas Song That Can Be Heard Every Year
robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Silent Night: The Story Behind The Christmas Song That Can Be Heard Every Year

A 200-year-old nativity song that was born in Germany, Silent Night rapidly conquered the world to become a beloved Christmas favourite.

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One of the best Christmas songs of all time, Silent Night has the distinction of being recorded over a record-breaking 4,000 times. Surprisingly, the plethora of artists who have covered it over the years come from a diverse range of musical backgrounds. While it’s understandable that such smooth-voiced crooners as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and, in more recent times, Michael Bublé, have put their unique stamp on Silent Night, there have also been some outlandish and unexpectedly subversive interpretations, including an eerie rendition from avant-garde German pioneers Can, in 1971, or US rockers Coffin Fuck’s 2018 death-metal take, which transformed the tune into the sonic equivalent of an apocalyptic snowstorm.

Reflecting the much-loved carol’s universality, Silent Night has also been embraced by rock’n’roll kings (Elvis Presley), soul queens (Aretha Franklin), pop princesses (Taylor Swift), jazz legends (Jimmy Smith), classical-music icons (André Rieu), church choirs (Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge) and even Britain’s Got Talent winners (Susan Boyle). For any artist considering recording a Christmas album to cement their status in the music world, Silent Night, with its haunting melody and peaceful message, is usually at or near the top of their list of song choices.

Listen to the best Christmas songs here.

What are the origins of Silent Night?

The first recording of Silent Night was made in 1902, a year after Queen Victoria died, by the Austrian opera singer Hans Hoffman, who waxed the tune under its original German title, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. By that time, the song was already a musical antique, having been composed by Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr in 1818, the year that saw the birth of communist manifesto writer Karl Marx and the first publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel.

Born in Salzburg, Mohr was a Roman Catholic priest and a writer of religious verse who also sang and played the violin. He wrote the words for Silent Night (Stille Nacht) as a six-stanza poem in 1816, when he was 24, and, two years later, on Christmas Eve 1818, encouraged his friend, schoolmaster and organist Franz Gruber, to set his verses to music. The pair worked quickly together – so much so that they premiered the resulting carol that same evening, at St Nicholas Church in Mohr’s parish in the Austrian village of Oberndorf.

The carol was instantly popular with the locals and eventually caught the ears of a travelling family music group called The Rainers, who exposed Silent Night to a wider audience. Eventually, the group performed Silent Night in front of the Austrian Emperor, Franz I, and, by 1839, had premiered it overseas, in New York City. Twenty years later, a US priest called John Freeman Young published the first English translation of Mohr’s lyrics, an event that helped to further popularise Silent Night and expose it to a global audience.

Who has recorded Silent Night?

Embraced as one of the best Christmas carols, Silent Night’s appeal quickly spread. To date, Silent Night has been translated into over 300 languages and featured in many movies. In recognition of its societal significance, in 2011 UNESCO declared Silent Night to be “an intangible cultural heritage”.

Despite an abundance of recorded versions, Silent Night has rarely made it into the pop singles charts. One of the most commercially successful versions was by Alabama soul man Percy Sledge (of When A Man Loves A Woman fame), who recorded the song on his Christmas album, My Special Wish For You, taking it to No.10 in the Dutch charts in 1969.

The Irish singer-songwriter Enya, famed for her ethereal, Celtic-themed mood music, also tasted chart success with Silent Night, recording a Gaelic version titled Oíche Chiúin (Chorale). Released in 1993, this haunting rendition entered the Top 50 in Australia.

In recent years, a host of artists have successfully revived Silent Night, proving the song’s durability well into the 21st century. Among them are contemporary Canadian crooner Michael Bublé (on his multi-platinum 2011 album, Christmas) and R&B sensation CeeLo Green, who gave Silent Night a soulful makeover on one of the best Christmas albums of the modern era, 2012’s CeeLo’s Magic Moment.

With Cliff Richard, Michael Oldfield and many more breathing new life into this well-worn Christmas classic, Franz Gruber and Josef Mohr’s 200-year-old song has become that rare and special thing in music: a gift that keeps on giving.

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