Earlier this month, My Own True Love and I began the holiday season with one of our favorite events: Songs of Good Cheer at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. For the last 25 years, a band of musicians and (now former) Tribune columnists Eric Zorn and Mary Schmich have led the audience in song. For the last 24 years, My Own True Love and I have been in that audience, accompanied by a changing cast of friends and family. The program each year includes both religious and secular holiday standards and less well known songs, some of which have become beloved over the years. There is always at least one Hanukkah tune and one song in Spanish. Every year, the audience sobs its way through a song by Mary Schmich titled “Gonna’ Sing.”*
Every year, the concert ends with “Silent Night.” This year, as we sang “Silent Night” I was reminded of our visit to Salzburg over Christmas several years ago. On our first full day in Salzburg we stopped at the Salzburg Museum to see a special exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night.”
Prior to seeing that exhibit, I had never thought about the historic context of the song, which a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and the local teacher and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber,wrote in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in 1818.
Salzburg and the area around it had been under duress for several years. It was plundered by the French during the Napoleonic wars. Like much of Europe, it had suffered crop failures and food shortages in 1816 (“the year without summer”). That same year, after being shuffled back and forth between Austria and Bavaria, Salzburg was annexed by the Hapsburg monarchy, losing both its autonomy and its role as a regional capital. In 1818, the city suffered a major fire. No wonder Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr wrote so longingly for peace.
I think we all share that longing this year.
*If you want to see the lyrics and hear the entire song, check out Eric Zorn’s blog, https://ericzorn.com/index.php/2023/12/12/gonna-sing/
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I’m taking the rest of the year off. I’ll be back in the new year with historical tidbits for your enjoyment. Until then, have yourself a merry little celebration of he victory of light over the darkness in the tradition of your choice