Franz Xaver Gruber – a simple village school teacher? (#10)

In the last blog, our topic was the priest Joseph Mohr. Today: The teacher Franz Xaver Gruber.

Were these two men such geniuses that they could create a song like SILENT NIGHT?

I think they were people like you and me.

Franz Xaver Gruber, born in Hochburg-Ach, Upper Austria in 1787, grew up with five siblings: A couple of head of cattle set the daily rhythm. The father being a linen weaver, the family was held in esteem in the village. 

When Franz Xaver, the „Franzl“, was nine years old, a stroke of fate struck the family: The mother died. Now Franzl soon had to take responsibility for the family and support his father in weaving. But there was something that gnawed away at him and didn’t leave him in „peace“!?

His teacher in the primery school, Andreas Peterlechner, had done it to him. His organ playing cast a spell over him. How often will Franzl have secretly sneaked up to the organ gallery to be very close to his teacher! Perhaps he would have liked to crawl into the organ case to find out where and how the tones come out. Andreas Peterlechner recognized the boy’s talent and secretly gave him organ lessons – the father was not to know! Later the tide turned, his father even bought him a spinet in Burghausen, 5 km away, and carried it home personally. Yes, Burghausen – Franzl later also received professional organ lessons from the well-known parish organist Georg Hartdopler. Franzl’s career took its course – he became a teacher and received his training in Ried im Innkreis (Upper Austria). Do you have any idea how long that took? – three months! That was in 1807. And now, where can he find a job as a teacher?

The church came to his aid! The Benedictine monastery of St. Peter (Salzburg) owned grounds in Hochburg-Ach. And the Benedictine monastery Michaelbeuern urgently needed a teacher for their school in Arnsdorf. Even more, Arnsdorf, this centuries-old place of pilgrimage, urgently needed an organist! What wonderful good luck! The Benedictines arranged it: Gruber got the job – but – there were problems to be resolved beforehand:

1. At that time (1807) Salzburg was not yet part of Austria! He therefore had to repeat the teacher exams in Salzburg. Certainly not a big problem.

2. He was supposed to do military service in Austria – and that during the Napoleonic wars! Had he reported for duty there, we would certainly not have the Silent Night carol today. The Abbot of Michaelbeuern arranged that Gruber’s court affiliation was transferred from Wildshut (Upper Austria) to Salzburg. They really needed a teacher and organist for Arnsdorf! This problem was resolved too.

3. The teacher’s and sacristan’s apartment in the school in Arnsdorf was not free! Elisabeth Fischinger, the widow of his predecessor, still lived there with her two children!

The solution?

He married her. She was a young widow, 33, Franz was 20 at the time! Elisabeth, as a long-established sexton, was a strong lady. Gruber Franzl, practically inclined as he was, he had no problem with that. – since he could now devote himself entirely to his profession as a teacher and organist. But love was also involved! They had two children together. But they died as small children.

Death was a constant companion of Gruber. His wife dies at the age of 51. He soon marries his former pupil Maria Breitfuß (19 years younger). She was a kitchen helper for the parish priest. He probably sent her to Gruber again and again to help him in the household. But, as I said: Gruber, the practical guy,… Franz had 10 children with Maria, but six died in childhood, only four children survived. Maria dies with the last child too, at the age of 34! That happend already in Hallein. A friend of the family, Katharina Wimmer, a widow from Böckstein, then became his third wife. As a respected choir master and organist, Gruber led a comfortable middle-class life in Hallein. Since he no longer taught as a school teacher, he could now dedicate himself entirely to music. He composed around a hundred pieces of music, mostly for church use: masses, devotional songs, But no one like Silent Night … In his estate was also a thick folder with drawings, all of which were very finely worked out.

Back in Arnsdorf: Gruber must have been a hardworking and skillful teacher; in an assessment of him in 1821, he was described as „loving in the treatment of the youth and of the best performance“. In the single-class primary school he had to teach 6 grades, all together, with around 35 children. Actually a pleasant situation. The number of pupils in other schools was consistently about 100! The teacher was paid for by the children’s school fees. Therefore, with this number of pupils, he would not have earned enough to live on. But he also received a kind of basic salary from Michaelbeuern Abbey – and the pilgrims paid for his organ services. The Arnsdorf farmers must have made sure that he had something “good” to eat. Overall, I wouldn’t call Gruber a poor village school teacher.

Gruber was also a bearer of culture. On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the church in Arnsdorf, he wrote a detailed history about the pilgrimage church “Maria im Mösl”. 

The following was reported about the secular celebration organized by Gruber in 1820:

„… under the direction of Mr. Gruber, schoolteacher and Sacristan of Arnsdorf, masses, litanies and oratorios, would have honoured any cathedral church“

Gruber worked in Arnsdorf for 21 years (1807 – late 1828) as a teacher, sacristan and organist. The encounter with the pilgrims and his responsibility for the pilgrimage events made him a respected personality in Arnsdorf. 

In 1816, when Salzburg became part of Austria, the Salzach river became the border, Oberndorf was separated from the city of Laufen and became its own parish. Gruber also took over the position of organist there, led the church choir and enjoyed a certain reputation as a gifted musician. The small additional income was also welcome. A year later, in 1817, Joseph Mohr came to Oberndorf as an assistant priest.

I will share my thoughts on the encounter between the two in the next blog.

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