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Devotion

‘Silent Night’

Soothing Christmas tune was created in midst of conflict

By Victor M. Parachin

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Silent Night,” the carol that briefly stopped World War I, is one of the most recognizable Christmas songs and one of the most popular pieces of holiday music. During December it can be heard in malls, churches and concert halls around the planet. Ironically, the world might never have had this piece of music had it not been for a last-minute crisis at a church in the tiny village of Oberndorf, Austria.

The year was 1818 and within the Church of St. Nicholas the mood was hardly one of joy that Christmas Eve afternoon. Curate Joseph Mohr, 26, had just discovered that the organ was badly damaged. No matter how much he tried to pump the pedals, he could only bring out a scratchy wheeze from the aged instrument.

By the time an organ repair specialist could reach the church Christmas would long be over. To the young pastor, a Christmas without music was unthinkable and unacceptable.

Mohr had a natural talent for music. As a youth he earned money singing and playing the guitar and violin in public. He put himself through the university with money he earned as a music performer. His academic ability and musical talents captured the attention of a clergyman who persuaded Mohr to enter the seminary. Ordained as a priest in 1815, Mohr was assigned to Oberndorf in 1817. There he not only preached well but surprised parishioners by occasionally leading worship while strumming his guitar.

Now faced with a Christmas crisis, Mohr realized the only music for that evening would be accompanied by guitar.

He also knew the traditional Christmas carols would not sound right on his stringed instrument, so he decided to produce something new. Thinking about Jesus’ modest birth almost 1,900 years earlier, Mohr began writing “Silent Night.” Using simple phrases, the young cleric felt inspired as he retold the story of Christ’s birth in six short stanzas.

For the music, Mohr turned to Franz Gruber, a friend who was a more skilled composer than he. Gruber was a teacher in nearby Arnsdorf. Mohr visited Gruber and his large family in their modest living quarters above the school where Mohr explained his dilemma. Handing over the six stanzas, Mohr asked if Gruber could compose music to be accompanied by guitar in time for that evening’s midnight mass. According to historians who pieced together the story, Gruber was struck by the innocence and beauty of Mohr’s words.

Quickly, he went to work on the musical composition.

With barely time for a rehearsal, the two agreed that Mohr would play his guitar and sing tenor while Gruber sang bass. Following each stanza, the church choir would join in on the refrain. At midnight, parishioners filled St. Nicholas Church expecting to hear the organist playing resounding notes of Christmas music.

Instead, their church building was silent. Father Mohr explained their church organ was “down” but that midnight mass would include new music prepared especially for the congregation. With Mohr strumming the guitar, two voices sang and were joined by the choir in four-part harmony.

Father Mohr proceeded with the evening celebration of the mass. Even without their organ, parishioners felt they had experienced a unique and memorable Christmas Eve service.

The story of “Silent Night” almost ended that evening as Mohr put the music away with no thoughts of using it again. After all, it was simply a stop-gap solution for a temporary problem. Father Mohr was transferred to another parish, and for several years “Silent Night” was never sung.

The organ at St. Nicholas continued to have problems and in 1825 the parish was forced to hire a master organ builder — Carl Mauracher — to reconstruct the instrument. Mauracher discovered the music left behind by Mohr and Gruber.

Its universal simplicity impressed the organ builder and he asked permission to make copies of “Silent Night.”

With permission given, Mauracher began introducing the carol to musicians and audiences, all of whom were enchanted by the piece.

Although the carol was making an enormous stir across Europe, Gruber and Mohr remained unaware of the accolades their music was creating.

Penniless, Mohr died of pneumonia in 1848 at the age of 55. He never learned his song was spreading around the world.

On the other hand, Gruber first heard of the carol’s success in 1854 when the concertmaster for King Frederic William IV of Prussia began searching for its authors. When word reached Gruber, then 67, he sent a letter to Berlin telling the origin of the song.

At first, few musical historians believed the two men from obscure villages could have developed such an exquisite piece of music.

When Gruber died in 1863, his authorship was still challenged, although questions gradually ceased as historians confirmed that Gruber and Mohr were indeed the authors.

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The Christmas carol that briefly stopped World War I

By Victor M. Parachin

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–When World War I erupted in 1914 launching the first great European war of the 20th century, soldiers on both sides were assured they would be home by Christmas to celebrate victory. That prediction proved to be false.

The men on the fronts did not get home for Christmas as the war dragged on for four years. During that time 8,500,000 men were killed, with hundreds of thousands more dying from injuries. The “war to end all wars” took a horrific human toll and transformed Europe.

However, on Christmas Eve in December 1914 one of the most unusual events in military history took place on the Western front. On the night of Dec. 24 the weather abruptly became cold, freezing the water and slush of the trenches in which the men bunkered. On the German side, soldiers began lighting candles. British sentries reported to commanding officers there seemed to be small lights raised on poles or bayonets.

Although these lanterns clearly illuminated German troops, making them vulnerable to being shot, the British held their fire. Even more amazing, British officers saw through their binoculars that some enemy troops were holding Christmas trees over their heads with lighted candles in their branches. The message was clear: Germans, who celebrated Christmas on the eve of Dec. 24, were extending holiday greetings to their enemies.

Within moments of that sighting, the British began hearing a few German soldiers singing a Christmas carol. It was soon picked up all along the German line as other soldiers joined in harmonizing.

The words heard were these: “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.” British troops immediately recognized the melody as “Silent Night” quickly neutralized all hostilities on both sides. One by one, British and German soldiers began laying down their weapons to venture into no-man’s-land, a small patch of bombed-out earth between the two sides. So many soldiers on both sides ventured out that superior officers were prevented from objecting. There was an undeclared truce and peace had broken out.

Frank Richards was an eyewitness of this unofficial truce. In his wartime diary he wrote: “We stuck up a board with ‘Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy stuck up a similar one. Two of our men threw off their equipment and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads as two of the Germans did the same, our two going to meet them.

“They shook hands and then we all got out of the trench and so did the Germans,” Richards said.

Richards also explained that some German soldiers spoke perfect English with one saying how fed up he was with the war and how he would be glad when it was all over. His British counterpart agreed.

That night, former enemy soldiers sat around a common campfire. They exchanged small gifts from their meager belongings — chocolate bars, buttons, badges and small tins of processed beef. Men who only hours earlier had been shooting to kill were now sharing Christmas festivities and showing each other family snapshots. The truce ended just as it had begun, by mutual agreement. Captain C.I. Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled how, after a truly “Silent Night,” he fired three shots into the air at 8:30 a.m. December 26 and then stepped up onto the trench bank. A German officer who had exchanged gifts with Captain Stockwell the previous night also appeared on a trench bank. They bowed, saluted and climbed back into their trenches. A few minutes later, Captain Stockwell heard the German officer fire two shots into the air.

The war was on again.

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Bombardier credits carol with saving his life

By Sue Ann Miller

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Every time Air Force veteran Lawson Corley hears the sacred Christmas carol “Silent Night,” he remembers the day 56 years ago when a German soldier spared his life because of Corley’s solo serenade on a snowy Christmas Eve. The year was 1944, World War II was ravaging Europe and Lt. Lawson Corley was serving his country as a lead bombardier in the 705th bomb squadron in the United States Air Force. His 10-member crew had just launched a successful bombing raid — which included an unexpected bonus of annihilating an enemy ammunition site — when their plane was hit by enemy fire.

The only alternative for the crew was to bail out and hope they would not be captured. Anti-aircraft flak had penetrated the walls of the plane and lodged in Corley’s backpack where his parachute was located. Corley jumped, hoping that his chute would open. He futilely pulled his ripcord, which detached in his hand. As he saw the earth spinning closer to him he knew death was imminent. He said a quick prayer to God pledging to serve Him if He would spare his life.

God answered Corley’s plea. Miraculously his parachute opened at treetop level. The hard jolt to the ground knocked the 20-year-old Birmingham native unconscious. He was discovered by the Belgian underground and hidden in a ditch with the promise of being retrieved under the cover of darkness. The help never arrived. The fugitive was awakened to the sound of German shepherd dogs snarling above him as he hid in his refuge.

Corley’s battered body was dragged by uncaring German soldiers and dumped into a cubicle-size dungeon with only a wooden board for a bed. His most serious injuries included a broken back and a ruptured kidney and spleen that went unattended for a number of days while Corley was being interrogated.

At one point Corley was taken to a castle in Belgium where he was deposited on a marble floor in front of a Nazi Gestapo commandant. “He demanded that I give him information on the Normandy invasion but I pleaded ignorance. He tried to entice me with the promise of medical care.”

Corley refused to cooperate, asking his enemy if he would reveal crucial information if he were captured. Indignant, the officer replied in perfect English that of course he would not. “I’m just as good a soldier as you are, Sir,” Corley replied. The German’s fist flying toward his face was the last thing Corley remembered before passing out. The beating resulted in the loss of 11 teeth, a broken nose and a ruptured eardrum.

Corley remembers regaining consciousness in a Nazi hospital in Belgium. His ruptured kidney would continually fill with blood and the German hospital attendants refused to drain it. Instead they ordered a 15-year-old Belgian boy to do the unpleasant task.

Once again God was keeping watch over Corley. The boy, a member of the Belgian underground, returned one day with German identification papers he had retrieved from a soldier he had killed. The soldier’s features were identical to Corley’s. His young accomplice wrapped the identification in Corley’s bandages on his back so that he could use them if he was ever able to escape.

Before long Corley was taken to the first of three prisoner of war camps where he would spend the next 11 months and five days of his life trying to survive.

His first Christmas as a prisoner of war was at Stalag Luft III in Poland. On Christmas Eve the guards had promised the Americans they could visit with some of their buddies in other barracks. Corley, an avid singer, went from barrack to barrack visiting his fellow prisoners and singing Christmas carols to them. Walking through the snow to his barrack he saw a guard standing sentry in the moonlight. Having taught himself German, Corley spontaneously stopped and sang the carol “Silent Night” to the guard in German. The soldier listened to the American sing in his rich baritone voice, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”

At the song’s conclusion, the Nazi replied twice in German, “Yes, I understand.” Corley went on to his destination, not realizing that this innocent act would prove to be another way God was encasing him in His protective arms.

Time marched on for the 10,000 captured Air Force officers housed at Stalag Luft III. Throughout the months that Corley spent there he was aware that many prisoners were digging escape tunnels in the compound. He points out that the movie “The Great Escape” was based on an actual occurrence that took place at Stalag Luft III. Corley was consulted as a resource for the movie.

By January 1945 the Germans knew the war was turning on them. In an effort to use the prisoners of war as negotiating tools, the command was given to relocate them to different camps. During January and February, when temperatures were well below zero, the men were forcibly marched from Poland to Nuremburg in central Germany.

“I can remember how cold it was as we marched through seven inches of snow. The moon was shining down on us and we could hear the noise of the Russians during their drive to Berlin. We would march for 55 minutes at a time and were given a five-minute break. At one point we saw an airplane dropping altitude and heading toward us. Our instinct was to dive for safety. I dove into a frozen ditch, the ice cracked and I went under water.”

Corley had only a wet blanket to try to keep dry. At one point he passed out from the cold during the allotted break period. He awoke to the ferocious bite of a German shepherd dog penetrating his arm as he staggered back into the procession. At another point when he could go no farther a German soldier came up to him and twice jammed his bayonet into Corley’s back and demanded that he “walk or die.”

The prisoners were housed in Nuremburg for only a short time before they were forced to march to another location in Moosburg. Corley decided to escape. The prisoners were being kept in a large barnyard area close to the drainage ditches used for cattle excrement.

The-six-foot-two American trudged through the vile ditch until he was out of the camp knowing that the impending chaos among the Germans would be to his advantage. A civilian aided him with food but warned him he was in imminent danger and would be safer back in the camp.

Weighing the odds, he made the decision to return. He had almost completed his goal when he came upon an unexpected sight at the top of the ditch – a German soldier pointing his gun at him. “The guard said the Fuhrer had ordered to shoot any prisoners trying to escape. I started to reason with him asking him if he wanted to see his family after the war was over. Hearing my voice he asked me if I was the prisoner who had sung ‘Stille Nacht’ to him. I said ‘yes’ I was the one and he let me pass.” Shortly after this episode General George Patton and his troops came through Moosburg and liberated the imprisoned heroes. Corley recalls being summoned to the general and quizzed about his treatment. When Corley shared the inhumane treatment he had been subjected to, Patton ordered the Nazi soldier to be brought to him. “The soldier who had stabbed me was brought to General Patton.

He pulled out his gun, pointed it at the Nazi and asked if I wanted him shot for what he had done to me. I asked the general to spare his life, telling him there had been enough killing in this war.”

Every Christmas season Corley, a member of South Roebuck Baptist, Birmingham, is asked to sing at holiday functions. “Silent Night” is always on his repertoire. He sings the verses in German and then shares his long-ago story of how God saved his life on a snowy Christmas Eve.

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  1. […] searched for more information about the Welsh singing in the tunnels, I found another website with an article about the origins and wartime miracles of the German song we know as “Silent Night.” Of […]

    Posted by The Ghost of December Past « Art Matters! | September 1, 2011, 5:45 pm