“Silent Night” – a project of the heart

Individuals representing Silent Night

There are hundreds of people that have been engaging with the subject of “Silent Night” for years and decades. They research the song’s genesis and make it come alive for people from all over the world in the form of museums, theatre plays and exhibitions. Most of the work is carried out on a voluntary basis and is the result of immense passion about the subject.

When Hans Schwarzmayr starts telling stories, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The curator of the Franz Xaver Gruber Memorial House in Hochburg-Ach speaks with a quiet voice and likes to choose his words rather carefully. The stories that he talks about are very important to him. They all revolve around the little town’s most famous son, here in the Upper Austrian Innviertel region. But they are also about the famed composition that, in the last 200 years, has managed to become the most well-known Christmas song in the entire world.

Just like Franz Xaver Gruber, Hans Schwarzmayr was born in Hochburg. “With the Memorial House, the Peace Path and the historical re-enactment on the third Advent weekend, the song and its history can be experienced everywhere this Christmas. Hochburg-Ach has never forgotten Franz Xaver Gruber. The first Gruber memorial plaques were already installed in 1900.” The Memorial House has been operated as a museum since 1976. It was completely renovated in 2017 and now looks better than ever. The Peace Path was opened in 2012 and around 3,000 visitors come to walk it every year. Just like his many colleagues, Hans Schwarzmayr has contributed thousands of working hours on a completely voluntary basis. On top of that, he has been playing the role of the teacher Andreas Peterlechner — who, in the early days, discovered Franz Xaver Gruber’s talents — in the historical re-enactment for years. “I took charge of this project of passion when I went into retirement and it still touches me,” Schwarzmayr emphasises.

But what does he see as the foundation for his fascination with the song? He says that it is mainly two things: “Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber were two modest men from impoverished circumstances who created a song that would last for generations. I can imagine that many people must have been somewhat disappointed when they first found out about this fact. When the Royal Prussian Court Chapel requested Salzburg to clarify the authorship of the song in 1854, it was most likely assumed that it had come from a famous composer like Michael Haydn. But in the end, it turned out to have been a simple village school teacher and an assistant pastor. The second thing that fascinates me is the song’s global dissemination during a time where there was neither the Internet nor Facebook.”

Those embarking on a walk on the approximately two-kilometre-long, beautifully laid out Peace Path in Hochburg-Ach will be asked to pick up a hand-painted peace rock and drop it off again at the end. In the last five years, Josef Schwaninger and Alfred Bachmair have hand-painted over 6,000 peace rocks. And they are so beautiful that most visitors choose not to leave them behind but end up taking them home as souvenirs. But the men don’t mind – painting the rocks has become a bit of a hobby for them. After all, it is their voluntary contribution to the town’s “Silent Night” project. It takes around a quarter-hour to a half-hour to finish painting one of the rocks from the Salzach river. The little acrylic painting is then sealed with varnish and a phrase or a few positive words are added onto the backside. The stones have become increasingly popular but there are always enough for everyone, because the residents of Hochburg-Ach — whether children or adults — like to collect rocks from the nearby-located Salzach river during their trips and then drop them off with the hobby painters.

• During Easter, the Franz Xaver Gruber Memorial House is open daily from 13:30 to 16:30 until 26 October. During the main holiday season, it is also open from 9:00 to 12:00.

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