It was a ‘Silent Night’ indeed when this beloved song was composed. If not for a broken pipe organ, the world likely might have been without its most widely used Christmas carol. Perhaps it was that very silence that inspired the Reverend Joseph Mohr to pen those now-famous words in 1818. At that time, it was probably sheer desperation rather than inspiration that motivated him.

As Father Mohr prepared for Christmas Eve Mass in the church inside the small Austrian village of Oberndorf, someone discovered that the church’s ancient organ was out of commission. With just a few days to travel as well as the nearest repairman several days journey away, it appeared like Mass would need to commence without musical accompaniment.

Feeling thwarted within his efforts to plan an unforgettable Christmas, Fr. Mohr set about to manufacture another plan. It was in the midst of all of his regular parish duties, including the blessing of a newborn infant. On this particular call, Fr. Mohr was suddenly struck by the words as to what has become known as “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht” in his native tongue. Quickly, in order not to lose the lines that were rapidly filling his brain, he finished his call and raced home. Here he penned four stanzas, the first which reads in English:

Silent Night, Holy night, All is calm, all is bright, Round yon’ virgin, Mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in Heavenly peace.

As he had set his words to parchment, he called upon his colleague, Franz Gruber, the musician who trained the parish choir. He managed to finagle from him the fact that, as well as his organ prowess, Gruber was also a guitar player. Gruber emphatically informed him, however, that his guitar skills were lower than proficient. Undeterred, Mohr presented the phrase to his new poem to Gruber. Rounding up a dusty, little-used guitar, both men composed the song that could provide music for Oberndorf’s Christmas Mass.

It had been unlikely at the time that either Mohr or Gruber had any inkling from the impact they could have on history. Actually, the song disappeared into near obscurity to get a decade. It had been then that fell to the hands in the Strasser group of Zillertal Valley.

The 4 young, musically-trained Strasser children spent many an hour drumming up business for parents’ glove-making business by singing in front of the shop. In a manner not unlike a modern talent agent discovering some secret talent in the unlikeliest of places, “Silent Night” was brought to the Strassers. Rearranged from two-part to four-part harmony, the Strasser children were catapulted to instant renown with their rendition. Valley residents renamed it “The Song From Heaven,” since the Strasser children sounded a great deal like a choir of angels once they performed it. They sang so beautifully, in fact, the Strassers were invited to execute it before kings and queens.

The Nativity Story is remarkable in their use of music, including traditional tunes in the season such as Veni Emmanuel, Carol of the Bells, and Silent Night–some choral plus some instrumental–introduced in a tasteful, tjuotf way, and coupled with a genuine score with by Mychael Danna that has a distinctly middle-eastern flavor. You might want to read Jonathan Broxton’s more detailed report on the film’s music.

It could have been a king who placed “Silent Night” indelibly on the lips of Christendom. King Frederick William IV of Prussia heard it sung some 22 years right after the Strasser children began performing “The Song from Heaven.” Afterward, he asserted that it must “be provided first spot in all future Christmas concerts” inside the domain of his rule. Whether or not it really was or otherwise not isn’t certain. What exactly is certain is that “Silent Night” breached King Frederick’s bounds to get loved all over the world.