“Silent Night” was sung first as “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” in Oberndorf, Austria in 1817. Written a year earlier as a Poem by Fr. Joseph Mohr, he took it to Franz Gruber on December 24, 1818 to inquire about a melody being put to it for the Christmas Eve service. So “Silent Night” was sung first by Mohr and Gruber, backed by the church choir and accompanied by only a guitar, at midnight mass in St. Nicholas Church December 25, 1818. There were six original verses to the song. They sang the verses in unison and then repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony.
Karl Mauracher, a master organ builder and repairman working on the church organ, took a copy of “Silent Night” to his village in the Ziller Valley, and thus this carol began its trip around the world. It was performed for kings and royalty around the world and for the first time in New York City in 1839 by the Rainer Family at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church.
Many stories have been passed around about the origin of this hymn and also about the real composer, but original manuscripts were found in recent years that had, in Mohr’s handwriting in the upper right corner, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber”. Fr. Joseph Mohr was born in 1792 and died penniless in 1848, having given all his money to the poor and helpless.
Listen to Linda Brockinton play this arrangement of “Silent Night.”
Linda’s notes on playing “Silent Night”:
My tablature arrangement below looks a little intimidating if you are not used to playing chord-melody style on your mountain dulcimer. Actually it is much simpler than it looks if you just focus on the first three numbers in each measure. These numbers make a chord, and if you put your fingertips down on the chord at the beginning of each measure and then pick the proper string, all the notes you need are there without moving until the next measure, unless of course the melody moves on the melody string.
If you look at the first measure you see that the chord is 4-3-2 or a reverse slant chord. To make this chord I use my thumb on the melody string, middle finger on the middle string, and ring finger on the bass string. Fingerings vary from player to player, so whatever you choose is fine.
Then we switch to a 2-3-4 slant chord. With my fingerings you simply drop the pinky at fret 2 on the melody string and index finger at fret 4 on the bass string, lifting the ring and thumb. By using the middle finger at fret 3, you can switch chords without lifting, and this is what allows your playing to be smooth.
Whatever fingers you use, hold all chords down until you are physically forced to move for a melody note or until it’s time to change to another chord. By doing so you will have a smooth, sustained playing style similar to the piano with the pedal down.
Slower practice is also recommended, as it is all about muscle memory. So go over each measure until it sounds like “Silent Night” and there is no hesitation. Adding one measure at a time helps you to learn the finger movements and helps you to memorize. You can also focus on looking at your hand and what you are doing instead of just concentrating on the numbers on the page.