Xmas Heroes – Franz Xaver Gruber
Franz Gruber was the son of linen weavers, Josef and Maria Gruber. He worked in their employ until he was 18, when he began training as a school teacher.
In 1807, he completed his training and became the teacher at the school in Arnsdorf, Austria. He was an effective teacher and his school was well regarded as being efficiently run. Along with the job of schoolteacher, he was assigned to be the church caretaker and organist.
In 1816, he became the organist at the new parish church of Oberndorf about two miles away. He was hoping to leverage this into a promotion to the teacher’s position in Oberndorf, but it never panned out.
In 1817, Father Joseph Mohr was assigned to the St Nicholas church in Oberndorf as an assistant pastor. He had written the words to Silent Night in 1816 while serving as assistant pastor in Mariapharr. With Gruber serving as organist, the two became friends.
On Christmas Eve of 1818, the organ in the Oberndorf Church was down for repairs. Father Mohr walked to Franz Gruber’s home and asked him to put his poem to music for the evening’s service. Gruber had the tune done in a few hours. They performed the song for the first time that evening accompanied by Gruber on guitar.
Within a few years, Gruber had written arrangements for organ and chorus. These were carried forward through the Archdiocese of Salzburg and throughout Europe by touring folksingers. The version of the song that we are most familiar with in English was translated by Father John Freeman Young in 1859, an Episcopal priest serving at Trinity Church in New York City.
In 1829, Franz Gruber resigned his teaching and organist responsibilities in Arndorf and Oberndorf to move to a much bigger school in Berndorf about 30 miles south. This opened the door for him to become the choir director of the church in Hallein in 1835. He was able to devote the rest of his professional life to music. He passed on in 1863 at the age of 76, leaving a rich musical heritage. His sons founded the Song Society in 1847 and the Halleiner Singers Table in 1849 as a testament to his love for music and teaching that he had passed on to them.