Mountain Births

Oberndorf, photo by Gakuro
I’ve often pondered the coincidence that creators of both extreme violence and deep peace were born in the same area of Austria, close to the Bavarian border.

Hochdorf, almost 50 kilometers north of Salzburg, is the birthplace of Franz Gruber, an organist and primary schoolteacher. He taught in the nearby village of Arnsdorf. Gruber is credited with writing the music for “Silent Night,” (German: Stille Nacht) which was first performed in 1818 on Christmas Eve in the St. Nikola church in Oberndorf about 3 kilometers away. The parish priest, Joseph Mohr, wrote the lyrics.

The story has it that Mohr needed a carol for the evening mass. In only a couple of hours, his musical friend Gruber came up with a melody to Mohr’s poem. But then the organ wasn’t working! So they had to improvise their new composition, which they sang as a duet that Christmas Eve, with only guitar accompaniment.

Photo by Anton-kurt
Today, it's only 17 kilometers on the S Bahn north from Salzburg to get to the idyllic mountain village of Oberndorf (population 5500). You can still visit the now famous St. Nikola parish church which was rebuilt, because of flooding, in 1937.

If you stay on that same train for another 40 kilometers, you’ll arrive in Braunau am Inn, a bigger town (population 16,000)—the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. Hitler failed as an artist; and instead of making beauty, he created the Second World War.  Ironic, isn’t it, how Silent Night and the Third Reich, were born in such close proximity to each other?

Mg-k - M. Klüber Fotografie
As a young adult, I had the opportunity to work in Berchtesgaden, on the German side of these mountains with Salzburg only 35 kilometers away. Hitler’s shadow still loomed large on the pretty town—his teahouse on the Kehlstein, then like now—a tourist destination. In those days, I didn’t think of how peace and war had had their humble beginnings in the mountains around me. I was only in awe of their majesty.

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