Franz Xaver Gruber

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Biography

Born: November 25, 1787    Died: June 7, 1863   Country: Austria   Period: Romantic
Franz Xaver Gruber was born in Hochberg, Austria, the son of a poor weaver whose intentions were that his son would follow in the family trade. As the young Franz Gruber came of age he discovered that his true interest was in music, and he cultivated it by taking music lessons in secret from organist Georg Hartdobler at the parish church in Burghausen. When Hartdobler died, Gruber replaced him in the post. In 1807 Gruber accepted a teaching post Read more in Arnsdorf where he served also as organist and sexton, and from 1816 Gruber also filled in from time to time in the frequently vacant organ loft at the church at St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf. In Oberndorf Gruber met Friar Joseph Mohr (1792 - 1848), who was serving as an assistant pastor at St. Nikolaus and adept at writing sacred poetry. Mohr may have contributed the text to the German Te Deum which Gruberset in February 1818.

According to Gruber, on December 24, 1818 Mohr provided him with the poem "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" along with the request that Gruber set it for two voices, chorus, and guitar. Gruber finished the work that same day, and Silent Night, arguably the most popular of all sacred Christmas carols, was heard for the first time during Midnight Mass at St. Nikolaus. The congregation received the piece with "great applause," but the long journey of Silent Night throughout the world did not begin until the following year, when organ builder Karl Mauracher visited St. Nikolaus to perform routine repairs on the organ and came away with a copy of Silent Night. Mauracher introduced the song to two well-known groups of Austrian "family singers" based in the Ziller Valley, the Rainers and the Strassers. These singers would spread Silent Night throughout the world; the Rainers sang it in Russia as early as 1822 at the request of Tsar Alexander I, and in 1839 the Strassers introduced the carol to the United States.

Although Silent Night made its way into print in 1819, some believed it to be a traditional Tyrolean folk song of no traceable lineage, although certain sources attributed the melody to Michael Haydn. Gruber kept silent about the matter until 1855, when he published a corrected version of Mohr's text and the original melody under his own name for the first time. In the interim he had moved on from Oberndorf "due to territorial changes" to teaching positions in Laufen and later Bergdorf, finally settling down in 1833 to a post as choir-director and organist at the parish-church in Hallein until his death at the age of 76.

Gruber was a prolific composer. A thematic catalog of his manuscripts published in 1989 claims more than 60 masses for Gruber, plus more than two dozen additional liturgical settings and about 35 songs both sacred and secular. Gruber also wrote dance music and made copious amounts of arrangements of popular melodies taken from operas. But out of all this activity, it is Silent Night that truly prevails, and it has paid off handsomely for Gruber: there are museums dedicated to him in Arnsdorf and Hallein, and a chapel built in honor of Silent Night itself opened in Oberndorf in 1937. Read less

Work: Silent Night

 

About This Work
"Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) derives from the traditional German Weihnachtslied (Christmas Song). The term Weihnachtslied was generally applied to seasonal German and Austrian pastoral songs of the eighteenth century. Such songs were Read more simple, strophic, melodically unsophisticated and for one or two voices accompanied by two violins and continuo or organ alone. Developed in rural central European churches, these songs were often performed at Midnight Mass, a Catholic ritual held very late on December 24 intended to end just after 12:00 a.m. on December 25, Christmas Day. Sometimes called Krippenlieder (crib songs), Weihnachtslieder are true representatives of a Germanic folk song tradition. By the early nineteenth century, composers and editors applied the term to almost any song with Christmas as its subject matter.

Although similar to the traditional Weihnachtslied, especially in its brevity, setting for few voices and, of course, subject matter, "Stille Nacht" is tinged with romantic sentiment and melodic sophistication. On December 24, 1818, Franz Xaver Gruber (1787 - 1863) composed the music at the request of Josef Mohr (1792 - 1848), the author of the text. At the time, Mohr was assistant priest at St. Nicholas' church in Oberndorf (near Salzburg), where Gruber was Kantor and organist. The song was first performed that night at Midnight Mass with a guitar accompaniment because the organ was not working. In 1825, an organ builder visited Oberndorf and took the song with him to the Tyrol. From there, the song made its way to the Leipzig trade fair of 1831 and was printed in 1838, slightly altered from the original. As its fame spread it came to be regarded as a Tyrolean folk song.

In 6/8 time, the song draws on Italian pastoral music with upward leaps of a third (at "Round yon virgin," "Holy infant," "Sleep in heavenly" and the penultimate "peace"). Austrian folk tradition is apparent in the repetition of melodic and rhythmic fragments and simple harmonic implications. The most obvious aspect drawn from art-song practice is an overall melodic motion that produces a "planar" effect, rising in stages to a climax then falling swiftly to the tonic pitch at the end. Mohr's text is peppered with Romantic-era imagery, including the baby's curly hair (in the original German text), shepherds and the quiet, peaceful night. Read less

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