The music to “Silent Night”, was composed at the last minute for a Christmas Eve Mass in 1818. However, the organ was broken. At the evening service, the priest and organist sang the song accompanied by guitar and choir. The Christmas carol is a fitting song to play on the mountain dulcimer; but let’s play in the Key of G so we can sing along.
Connecting with Silent Night
Lagniappe Dulcimer Society member, Jan Delgehausen, re-discovered a cookbook on her book shelf with a Christmas pudding recipe from the great-great-granddaugher of Franz Gruber. To recall history facts, Gruber wrote the music for “Silent Night”. This makes a fascinating connection to the Christmas carol. This blog post is about the story of “Silent Night”; Jan’s connection to the carol and playing the carol on the mountain dulcimer; but in the Key of G.
The story of “Silent Night” and Franz Xaver Gruber
The words to “Silent Night” were written by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, who had come to Oberndorf, Austria in 1817. He wrote the words as a six-stanza poem in 1816. Mohr wanted a song for his Christmas Eve Mass in 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg in Austria. He remembered his poem and came to Franz Guber, a schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdorf, that afternoon.
Mohr wanted a song for voice and choir with organ accompaniment. The organ, however, was broken–the legend says that mice were the culprits; but that part of the story is undocumented. Mohr was an excellent guitar player and so the song was written for guitar accompaniment. Gruber did not have much time but was able to finish the melody and music that afternoon for the Christmas Eve Mass that night. Gruber and Mohr sang baritone and bass parts with the guitar and the choir sang in 4-part harmony repeating the last two lines of each verse.
When the organ builder, Karl Mauracher , came to Oberndorf to repair the organ, Gruber played the Christmas carol on the organ. The organ builder was impressed with the song and took copies back to his own village in the Alps. There, two well-known families of singers, the Rainers and the Strassers, heard the song and added it to their own Christmas season repertoires. The singing families spread the song across Europe and the Rainers brought the song to the U.S.; performing it in German in New York City outside New York City’s Trinity Church in about 1838. And that is how one of our must beloved Christmas carols, “Silent Night”, had its beginnings.
As an interesting post-note, the melody that we are familiar with is slightly different from the one Gruber composed. At some point, the melody at the end of the song was changed from a lively jig in 6/8 time to a more somber one.
Franz Xaver Gruber’s Children
Franz Xaver Gruber was born in 1787. His father was a linen weaver and Franz was expected to continue in the trade. Franz preferred music and eventually his talent was recognized. He trained as organist and became a schoolteacher to supplement his income. In 1807 Gruber became a schoolteacher in Arnsdor and in 1816 he took on the additional responsibilities of organist and choirmaster at St Nicholas Church in the neighboring village of Oberndorf.
Gruber had twelve children by two of his three wives. However, only four survived until adulthood. One of these children, Herman Gruber, emigrated to America in the mid 1800’s and settled in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. Herman Gruber had three daughters. His descendents still live in the Illinois area although none have the Gruber name.
Jan – History Buff
Jan Delgehausen is a history buff. She especially enjoys researching her maternal German heritage and her paternal Irish ancestry. Jan’s first maternal German ancestors arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1818 from Wuerttemberg, Germany. Later ancestors arrived from Bavaria. They were butchers, carpenters, and proprietors of coffeehouses, a combination of taverns and boardinghouses.
One of the last to immigrate to New Orleans was William Wiemers, who was born in Noerde, Westphalia, Germany. By 1904, he became the brew master of the New Orleans Brewing Company, Weckerling Branch.
“Years ago, Delge and I went to a festival in Clinton and I bought a German cookbook titled, Rediscovering German Cookery that was originally housed in the Audubon Regional Library in Clinton LA. I completely forgot about it until this morning while looking through a few German vocabulary reference books.
The cookbook was prepared in 1976 by “Community Rediscovery ‘76, a Project of the Quincy Society of Fine Arts and Illinois Arts Council under contract with the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.” The recipes were given by family members of immigrants of German descent who settled in Adams County, Illinois in the 1800’s. A few family stories are included with the recipes, all fascinating.
The attachment is from the Great-great granddaughter of Franz Gruber, composer of “Silent Night.” The entry was found on page 79 under the heading “Desserts” and the Duchess Crem Gruber Christmas Dessert was found on the following page. I know you will enjoy reading this entry, as I did. “
What does the dessert look like? Here is my variation of the tapioca pudding with whipped topping, mandarin oranges and maraschino cherries rather than white cherries or grapes. It is quite tasty and light – it you make it, don’t omit the nuts!
Long-Standing Lagniappe Member
Jan as been a member of the Lagniappe Dulcimer Society since we began meeting; this was in the community room at the Fire Station on Old Hammond Highway. Jan took one of my first LSU Leisure Classes in playing the mountain dulcimer, next took lessons from Pat Fontaine and has continued since then. She got side-tracked briefly when her husband ran over her dulcimer–not once but twice. The dulcimer she plays now is made from a Folk Craft kit. Club member, Charlie LeBlanc, put the kit together. As you can see from the photos, it’s a nice dulcimer.
Jan and her husband, Delge, have attended most of the lagniappe fetes. They actively help to make the dulcimer fetes a success by working behind the scenes doing many unrecognized tasks, such as cleaning up the museum after classes are finished. Delge, a retired pastor, led Sunday gospel services several years. Here are Jan, Betty and Joyce waiting for a concert in 2013.
Playing “Silent Night” on the dulcimer and singing
“Silent Night” is one of our best known Christmas carols and sounds beautiful when played on the mountain dulcimer. However, when singing the carol, it is difficult to reach the high notes in the Key of D. The song has a wide range of notes – over an octave – and even a soprano might have difficulty singing in this key. The Key of G is a much better key for singing “Silent Night”.
It is easy to play in the Key of G on the dulcimer if you are willing to expand playing techniques. Here are two suggestions:
- Retune the dulcimer to DGD which is the Key of G. To accomplish this, just lower the middle string one note — to G. That’s all there is to it. Usually just a half turn or so of the tuning peg. The more you practice the easier it becomes. In this tuning the scale goes from the third to the tenth frets. Part of the song is actually played on the lower frets and the melody goes to the middle and bass strings. I find that this is easier that going up and down the melody string on the fretboard.
- Play the song on a “Ginger” dulcimer which is tuned to the key of G. The smaller 3/4 size dulcimer and shorter fretboard tuned to GDG uses the same tablature as a standard dulcimer. You don’t have to retune–it is designed for playing in the key of G. Don’t have a ginger dulcimer? Perhaps a good addition to a “dulcimer collection.”
Here is our version of Silent Night as a duet. The Ginger dulcimer on the left, tuned to GDG, which Helen Bankston is playing is pitched an octave higher than the standard dulcimer. The standard dulcimer on the righy, played by Maylee Samuels, is tuned to DGD making a nice contrast.
And the tablature for the DGD and GDG versions.To print PDF files, click on the links. Here is DGD tuning for a standard dulcimer.
Here is GDG for a Ginger dulcimer.