Halfway through December 1818, the church organ in St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, 11 miles north of Salzburg in what is now Austria, broke (a popular version of the story claims that mice had eaten out the bellows). The curate, 26-year-old Josef Mohr, realized it couldn't be repaired in time to provide music on Christmas Eve. He told his troubles to his friend, a headmaster and amateur composer named Franz Gruber, while giving him as a present a poem he had written two years earlier. Gruber was so taken by the rhythm of the poem that he set it to music, and on Christmas Eve there was music after all. Mohr played his guitar while the pair sang the song. It was the first public performance of "Stille Nacht" or as we know it "Silent Night."
It is believed that the carol has been translated into over 300 languages around the world, and it is one of the most popular carols of all time.
Bing Crosby's version became his best-seller of the 1930s.
Music licensing company PPL announced in December 2010 that this carol tops the list of Britain's "most recorded Christmas song of all time." Said Mike Dalby, Lead Reporting Analyst at PPL: "Silent Night is a beautiful carol which encapsulates the feeling of Christmas entirely. Everyone from punk band The Dickies right through to Sinead O'Connor has recorded it, which exemplifies just how much it resonates with all different types of artists."
According to PPL, Sinead O'Connor's 1991 recording was the most popular version of the carol in Britain.
When the organ builder finally did show up to repair the St. Nicholas organ, he was given a copy of the "Silent Night" composition and brought it home. From there, traveling folk singers got a hold of it and began incorporating the carol into their repertoire. It didn't make its way to America until 1839.
As the song gained traction throughout Europe, Franz Gruber composed several different orchestral arrangements. He donated all profits from the carol to local charities for children and the elderly, and eventually died penniless.
According to Steve Sullivan's Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Crosby, a devout Catholic, refused to record the religious song, arguing it would be "like cashing in on the church or the Bible." Crosby met with Father Richard Ranaghan, a priest trying to raise money for overseas missions, and decided to donate the royalties to the cause. But Ranaghan died in a car accident later that year, so the money went to several charities throughout the US and abroad.
There are over 26,000 different versions of "Silent Night" on Spotify, meaning you could listen to a different rendition of the carol every night for 72 years.
This song lends itself to interpretation because the first four bars are all on the same chord. Jim Brickman
explains: "There's room to treat it dynamically in a different way: in the tempo, in the sounds and silences, in the time signature."
In 2013, 5th grade students at the Ralph J. Osgood Intermediate School in Long Island, New York, sang a controversial rendition that removed the religious lyrics "Christ the Savior is born," "Holy infant so, tender and mild," "round yon virgin, mother and child" and "Jesus, Lord at thy birth." But a few recorded versions also remove some of the lines, possibly to appeal to a broader audience or reflect the singer's own beliefs regarding Christianity. Jewish singer Barbra Streisand's 1967 cover includes references to a holy child and the virgin mother but omits "Christ the Savior is born" and "Jesus, Lord at thy birth." Stevie Nicks' popular 1987 version follows suit, but mentions "Son of God" and "redeeming grace" without explicitly naming Jesus.