Joseph Mohr was born as a child out of wedlock to the knitter Anna Schoiber and a musketeer of the archiepiscopal guard on 11 December 1792 at Steingasse 31 in the episcopal city of Salzburg. This was also where he spent his childhood and school days in rather impoverished circumstances. Mohr never met his father. He was baptised just a few hours after his birth at the Salzburg Cathedral.
Salzburg in the spirit of the Catholic Enlightenment
Under the reign of Prince-Bishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, who ruled Salzburg beginning in 1771, the Enlightenment spirit had finally reached Salzburg city: Salzburg’s last prince-bishop prohibited anything that provided any kind of sensual pleasure. He stood for extensive reforms in the structure of the church, as well as in culture and social life. Luscious and glamorous ceremonies, such as the banging of firecrackers, solstice fires, chiming the bells to prevent bad weather and even nativity plays were abolished during his reign. At the same time, the spirit of progress was attracting leading scientists, writers and musicians from across the German-speaking world to Salzburg: Michael Haydn, for example, was highly valued as a church musician by Colloredo. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, left Salzburg in 1781 following disagreements with its ruler and then moved to Vienna. In 1800, the Prince-Bishop fled Salzburg; that same year, the city was occupied by French troops. In the following years, the former residential city, following changing rulers, slowly degenerated into a barren, godforsaken provincial city.
Joseph Mohr’s childhood and adolescent years in Salzburg
Despite the unfavourable family conditions and the difficult events unfolding around him, Joseph Mohr had both luck and talent. In the cathedral vicar Johann Nepomuk Hiernle, Mohr had found a patron who supported the young boy wherever possible. Mohr was always among the best pupils in his preparation classes as well as later in the academic gymnasium. His musical abilities earned him a spot in the choir of St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg. This provided the 15-year-old Mohr with access to an excellent, very practice-oriented education: 600 engagements were performed per year.
His theological education at what was the Royal Bavarian Lyceum in Salzburg at the time was concluded with the priestly ordination in the Cathedral on 21 August 1815. On 16 March 1819, he received the great honour of being allowed to perform the Lenten sermon. A clear sign of his extraordinary rhetorical abilities, his eloquence and his theological expertise.
On the traces of “Silent Night” in the city of Salzburg:
- The Salzburg Cathedral with its historic baptismal font can be visited free of charge. The cathedral’s organ was reconstructed by Carl Mauracher: In 1819, the organ builder from Zillertal brought the song “Silent Night” from Oberndorf to his home of Fügen.
- Salzburg’s Prince-Bishops have shaped the city and the province throughout the centuries. Those who want to find out more about their history should visit the DomQuartier, which the Salzburg Cathedral is also part of.
The DomQuartier, reopened in 2014, reflects the scope and power that the Prince-Bishops of Salzburg had over 1,000 years: They possessed countless special privileges, some of which have remained to this day. Beginning in 1648, Salzburg was a sovereign principality in the Holy Roman Empire. It had such a unique position within Europe that it retained its role as an Archbishopric even following the post-Napoleonic reorganisation of Europe. Salzburg became part of the Habsburg Empire only in 1816.
After a 200-year hiatus, the opening of the Salzburg DomQuartier restored the unity of the Cathedral and the residential complex with the inclusion of St. Peter’s Abbey. The historic walk through the Baroque building ensemble amid the old town is considered a medley of architecture, art and music that is absolutely unique in Europe. It contains around 2,000 precious exhibition pieces spread across an area of 15,000 m² and includes the State Rooms, the Residenz Gallery, the Cathedral Museum with the Cathedral Treasury, the reconstructed Chamber of Art and Wonders, the Long Gallery, St. Peter’s Museum, as well as special exhibitions from the various participating museums.
- Salzburg is considered the “Rome of the North”: Approximately 400 years ago, Salzburg’s Prince-Bishops began transforming the city into a Baroque jewel north of the Alps. Their role model for construction and architecture was pompous Rome. Thus, Italian architects came to Salzburg to build the Cathedral, various churches, chapels, abbeys and cemeteries based on Italian models and examples. The abundance of splendid and sacred constructions within such a tight space, as well as the wide squares of the old town, truly remind of Rome’s cityscape. The Prince-Bishops laid the foundations for today’s Salzburg, which, being an urban masterpiece, has been protected and appreciated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.
- In Salzburg, several guided city tours on the subject of “Silent Night” are on offer, many of which lead through the Steingasse street, into the Salzburg Cathedral, to the Priest’s House at the Makartplatz square, to St. Peter’s Abbey at the foot of the Mönchsberg mountain and to today’s University of Salzburg with its Great Hall. This is where the academic gymnasium was located during Mohr’s time.
- Those keen on embarking on their very own city walk should start at Steingasse 31, where Mohr grew up. Start walking into the city and turn right after the Inneres Steintor city gate onto the Imbergstiege staircase leading past the Michaelskirche church to the Kapuzinerkloster abbey. The little city tour then continues via the Stefan-Zweig-Weg path, take a right across the Kapuzinerberg mountain until the little Franziskischlössl castle. In its courtyard, you will find an atmospheric little Advent and culinary market, far away from the bustles of the city. If the paths are free of ice, the way back may lead to the Schallmoos district followed by a left turn via Linzer Gasse, otherwise the return journey begins with an ascent. At Linzer Gasse, you will find the peaceful Sebastiansfriedhof cemetery, where Mohr’s mother is likely buried. The tour leads across the Reitsamerplatz square, then a right towards the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Priest’s House in which Mohr resided during his training to become a priest. Cross the Markatplatz square and the Makartsteg bridge into the left Old Town. Here you will walk through one of the Getreidegasse passages to the Kollegienkirche church. It was built by Fischer von Erlach, inaugurated in 1707 and was demonstratively used as a hay storage space by Napoleonic troops during French occupation. This was also the exact time when Mohr visited the nearby-located academic gymnasium and sang at the choir of St. Peter’s Abbey. The way continues via the Franziskanergasse to St. Peter’s cemetery and to the Kapitelplatz square. On the other side on your right, the precious Silent Night autographs are stored in the archive of the diocese, whereas the Cathedral harbours the baptismal font on the left side next to the entrance with which, among many other Salzburg residents, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Mohr were baptised only 36 years apart. From the Cathedral, it’s not very far to the Salzburg Museum in the Neue Residenz.
- The famed Salzburger Glockenspiel will chime the melody of “Silent Night” on 24 December at 07:00, 11:00 and 18:00. During Christmas Mass, the original version of “Silent Night” is traditionally sung at churches.
- Experience a “literal” Silent Night in Bergheim near Salzburg. Come to Bergheim for a unique and romantic lantern walk: Beginning in mid-November, lanterns will be made available at the Maria Plain hotel which can be rented by anyone and at any time. Don’t miss out on this unique experience. The trail across Plainberg is also cleared during winter. The lights of the city of Salzburg can be seen from many vantage points as you pause and reflect on the here and now.