Franz Xaver Gruber

1787 1863

Franz Xaver Gruber

Composer

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Biography

Franz Xaver Gruber was a 19th century Austrian composer most famous for his sacred works. In particular his hymnStille Nacht (1818), known in English as Silent Night, Holy Night, has survived to become one of today’s most popular Christmas carols.

Gruber was born in the small village of Hochburg, Austria to a family of weavers. Although Gruber was expected to follow in the footsteps of his parents and his five brothers and sisters in the textile industry, he had other ideas, and began taking lessons in secret with Andreas Peterlechner, a schoolteacher. Upon turning 18, he was finally able to convince his father to let him pursue a career in music and teaching, and he began studying with Georg Hartdobler, a church organist.

By the age of twenty, Gruber had finally finished his studies and passed the necessary exams to become a certified teacher and organist. His first position began in the fall of 1807 in Arnsdorf, Germany, where he soon married a local widow, Maria Elisabeth Engelsberger. Soon after, he added a new appointment as church organist in Oberndorf and two children, neither of whom survived childhood, to his list of responsibilities. Despite his overwhelming schedule, it seems that Gruber was able to excel in nearly every area. His school was consistently praised as one of the best in the area, and Gruber had quickly gained a reputation as a top-notch organist.

The background and origin of Stille Nacht was for some time under dispute, partly because of Gruber choosing not acknowledge composing the song or publishing a version under his own name until 1855. Because of this delay, many believed the carol to actually be a Tyrolean folk song, due to its popularity in that area, which straddled the border between Austria and Italy. Although the work does contain definite influences from both Italian and Austrian folk music, Gruber’s authorship is now undisputed.

Although Stille Nacht has tended to overshadow his other works, Gruber was actually quite a prolific composer. Many of his works were essentially forgotten for well over a century, but fortunately many of them were catalogued and published in 1989. This represented the first time that the public was exposed to the vast majority of Gruber’s work, which includes an astonishing 60 masses and over twenty additional liturgical pieces in addition to dance music, secular songs and arrangements of many hits from the operatic tradition. Like Stille Nacht, most of Gruber’s other works are simple and melodic. Although they come out of a tradition that is Classically influenced, Gruber was unique in incorporating several uniquely Romantic aspects in his works, and as such they often had a heightened sense of drama.

It was while he was at Arnsdorf that the 300th anniversary of the founding of the village’s church was celebrated, an event which brought 20,000 outsiders to the region and which saw Gruber direct many orchestral performances over the course of the five-day festival, which helped secure his reputation throughout the region.

However, the most significant moment of Gruber’s career, or at least the one he is best remembered for today, was composing music for the songStille Nacht, set to lyrics which Josef Mohr, an assistant priest, had written two years previously. The song was premiered in Oberndorf on Christmas day 1818. At the time, Gruber didn’t think much of the work, calling it “a simple composition.” However, thanks to a few enthusiastic advocates,Stille Nacht quickly spread. A passing organ builder, Karl Mauracher, happened to come across a score to the work while travelling through Oberndorf. When he returned to Austria he showed the piece to family singer groups including the Rainers, who brought it to Russia, and the Strassers, who brought it to America.

Gruber would not receive much recognition for his most famous work during his lifetime, but his career seemed to be doing just fine without it. He became the choir director and organist in the city of Hallein, in 1835. As the second-largest city in Salzburg province, this was a great opportunity for Gruber, and he enthusiastically set about his new duties building and training a choir. However, this time was also marked by tragedy, as Gruber’s second wife, his former student Maria Breitfuss, passed away. He ended up marrying a third time, to Katharina Wimmer, but soon after, his mental facilities began to fade. Although he lived to the ripe age of 75, he composed very little after his 60th birthday.

While he was appreciated during his life, Gruber would become beloved by subsequent generations. Several museums were erected in his honour in the cities of Arnsdorf and Hallein, and a chapel paying tribute toStille Nacht was built in 1937. Many of the locations associated with his life are still frequent tourist and pilgrimage destinations, including his grave in Hallein and in Hochburg, where a plaque marks the spot where the house, called the “Steinpointsölde” in which Gruber was born once stood.

Images courtesy of Salzburger Nachrichten and public domain

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