In 1818, an assistant priest in Oberndorf, Austria gave a copy of a poem he had written to a friend and asked if he could write music to go with the words. On Christmas Eve of that year, a song destined to become one of the world’s best known best Christmas carols was sang in public for the first time.
The song is Stille Nacht or, as we know it in English, Silent Night.
How a simple melody sang outside an Austrian church after Christmas mass over 200 years ago became known worldwide is an interesting story. It’s one that they’re proud to tell at the Stille Nacht Kapelle (Silent Night Chapel).
The town of Oberndorf is located about 30 minutes from Salzburg by train. On our trip in 2019, we had a morning free before we had to catch a train to Munich. Besides knowing Silent Night for our entire lives, we also had to learn the song in German when we sang at Disney’s Candlelight Processional. We also got to hear the story about how the organ at the church was broken and the composer only knew three chords on the guitar, thus explaining the song’s simple melody.
The train ride only cost about 10 Euro and we exited at a station a short walk from the chapel. Being a tourist attraction, there were plenty of signs pointing the way.
When we reached the site, we found the museum. With a modest entry fee of 4.5 euros, we decided to check it out.
The exhibits told about the area when the song was written. We learned about Joseph Mohr, who wrote the words and Franz Xaver Gruber, who added the music. We also learned that many of the stories told about the origins of the song are 100% false, like the one about Franz Gruber having to write the song on guitar because the church organ was broken.
By far, the best part of the museum was the second floor where you could sit on the original church pews while listening to the song on headphones. There was also an original copy of the song in a hermetically sealed case.
After the museum, we went to explore the chapel. Keep in mind that visiting the museum is optional but if you’re going out of your way and taking a train ride here, the price is not prohibitive even if it only takes less than an hour to see the whole place.
The original church is long gone, destroyed by several floods. It’s understandable since Oberndorf is located on a bend of the river.
The church was eventually moved upriver but the locals wanted to commemorate their song becoming a global standard. The 100th anniversary of the song in 1918 was not a great time to build a new chapel because of the World War, but in 1924 construction started for a new chapel on the site of the old church which was finished in 1937.
The small chapel has just a few pews. Adorning the walls are stained glass windows of Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber.
As we visited around Christmas, there were also several Christmas trees.
Typically, the year’s big event happens on Christmas Eve when people descend on the small chapel and gather to sing Silent Night. Unfortunately, that will not be happening this year because Austria is currently on lockdown measures due to COVID-19.
On the level of tourist attractions, this isn’t one that goes to the top of the list. However, we found it interesting to learn more about the origins of a song that’s a part of many people’s lives. Having some of Silent Night’s urban legends busted was a bit of a downer but knowing the real story about how the song happened was well worth it in exchange.
If you’re only spending a day or two in Salzburg, there are many other places to go in town. However, if you’re returning to the area, this is a great way to spend 1/2 a day, particularly if you’re visiting around Christmas.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary