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Positively Upstate: Silent Night

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One of the world’s best known Christmas songs is about to celebrate a big anniversary.

‘Silent Night’ will turn 200 years old on Christmas Eve. According to local hymn historian Bill Dagle, it was originally written by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest, as a poem in 1816.

“Silent Night has a lot of urban legend that goes with it,” Dagle says. “He (Mohr) tells us the true meaning of Christmas is found in celebrating the Lord’s Word.”

Mohr kept ‘Silent Night’ as a poem for two years before taking it to the Church of Saint Nicholas in Austria in 1818 to be performed in front of an audience. It was that Christmas Eve night that he ran into a problem.

“The organ there was in rough shape to begin with and wouldn’t play,” he says. “And he (Mohr) wanted to do something special for midnight mass.”

Collaborating with the organist there, Franz Gruber, they were able to make the poem into a song that could be played on a different instrument. The guitar.

“And there on Christmas Eve 1818, the song was first sung by Joseph and Franz and it was played on the guitar,” Dagle says.

In addition to studying hymns, Dagle collects phonographs. When CBS6 first met him at the First Baptist Church in Rensselaer, he’d brought along his 1914 Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph to play a record of ‘Silent Night’ from 1925. It’s called a ‘diamond disc’ because the needle (or stylus) on this machine is an actual diamond.

Dagle says the resilience of diamonds is one of the reasons why these particular phonographs last so long and can still play music with great quality. He calls it a time machine.

“Silent Night brings us back to the true meaning of Christmas,” Dagle says. “And every church in the Capital District area will definitely sing Silent Night. It’s a masterpiece. The apex of what Christmas is all about.”

For more information on Bill Dagle’s research including when to catch his programs on Christian radio for WNGN 91.9, click on this link.

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