The odyssey of the Mohr guitar

A guitar also has a story and, what`s more, this one has a long and diverse story that is worth telling. The instrument in question has a corpus made of sycamore wood with a length of 43.2 cm, diameter of between 22.6 and 28.3 cm, and a height of between 11.6 and 12.3 cm. It has a neck of red beech 31 cm long, a sound hole with a diameter of 7.6 cm, 6 strings and a bridge made of bone.

The owner of the guitar was a priest called Joseph Mohr. That is not as obvious as you might think. Many authors named Franz Xaver Gruber as the owner and also had him play the instrument during the first performance at Christmas in 1818. They still do it today occasionally. In the glass window of the Oberndorf Silent Night Chapel, Gruber is immortalised as a guitarist. His grandson, Felix Gruber, also liked to talk of his grandfather`s guitar although he knew better. You would almost think it suited him just fine when people assumed that. It is no longer possible to discern where this legend started. The carol was composed by Gruber as a guitar accompaniment, which means he must also have played it; that is presumably what many people thought.

It is not known to date when, where and how it came into the possession of Joseph Mohr. Its production and material are no different from other guitars; it does not come from any well-known workshop. The assistant priest, Joseph Mohr, played the carol `Silent Night` on it for the first time on 24 December 1818, and that makes it so unique for us.

The Mohr guitar, presented in the Silent Night Museum in Hallein

From Joseph Mohr to Felix Gruber

Mohr kept the guitar all his life; it accompanied him to his various places of work. After his death in Wagrain in December 1848, his estate, which also included the guitar, was auctioned off. The director of the St. Andrä School in Salzburg, Hans Kainzner, reports what happened next to the guitar.

As a young teacher in Kuchl, he met the retired senior teacher Josef Felser, who was spending his twilight years at his son-in-law's, who was the owner of the `Täublwirtshaus` in Kuchl. Felser said that as a young assistant teacher he had acquired the guitar from Mohr's estate after the latter's death. It also accompanied him to his places of work in Altenmarkt, Mauterndorf, St. Pantaleon and Kuchl. It was now hanging in the tavern and was occasionally used by the guests. Even as a percussion instrument, in the truest sense of the word - during a brawl.

After Felser's death, his son-in-law was intending to give the guitar to a museum in Salzburg in return for a new instrument. The museum director, Dr Petter, however, only wanted to have it as a gift, and so it remained hanging in the tavern. In 1911, Felix Gruber, the composer's grandson, married the singer Ella Koleit. Friends of his purchased the guitar from the owner of the `Täublwirtshaus` and gave it to him as a wedding present. This is how the guitar came to be owned by the Gruber family.

In 1938, Felix Gruber was given the position of registrar in the municipality of Hallein. One condition for this was the free-of-charge transfer of the estate of F.X. Gruber to the town; the estate also included the guitar. During the Second World War, the guitar, along with other items, was stored in a salt mine to protect it from air raids. The Gruber estate remained packed in boxes until the conversion of the old `Griestor` into the Hallein Municipal Museum in 1952. It was only then that the guitar was presented to the public for the first time in a special Gruber room. After the opening of the Celtic Museum in the old `Pfleggebäude`, the guitar was moved there. Since 1993, when a museum was set up in the `Mesner` building in Gruber's former living quarters, it has been exhibited there.

The first trip to America

In July 1965, the municipality of Hallein received a request from the National Arts Foundation of New York. The company was planning an autumn exhibition in Dallas, Texas, with the title `Art treasures from Austria`. Its director, Dr Carleton Smith, a music scientist, was asking to borrow the Hallein version of the Christmas carol `Silent Night` and the guitar belonging to Josef Mohr (referred to as the Gruber guitar in the letter).

The municipality agreed to provide the two objects for the period from 3 August until the beginning of December. The autograph score and the guitar were insured for a total of Schilling 250,000. Director Carleton Smith collected them in Hallein in person and took them to America. On 6 October 1965, even before the official opening, the mayor Josef Brandauer received a letter from Dr Smith, in which the latter reported on the great interest from the American public in the two items. Around two million visitors were estimated to see the exhibition in Texas. Numerous enquiries from all over the US had been received, requesting to be allowed to exhibit the guitar and the score.

Dr Smith asked to exhibit both items in November, either in New York or Washington. The municipality of Hallein was delighted at the great interest and permitted a further exhibition, subject to the items being returned to Hallein by mid-December. Together with the guitar and autograph score, 200 works of art had travelled from Austria to America for this great exhibition of art. The financing was taken over by the state of Texas; the works of art were flown in by aeroplanes from the US Air Force. The items were shown in the city library, the Museum of Art and the Art Centre of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The two items from the Gruber estate had been specifically requested by Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

From Dallas to Ottawa

As a member of the Austrian UN delegation, Dr Franz Leitner, Austria's ambassador to Canada, travelled to New York where he met Foreign Minister Dr Bruno Kreisky. The latter had just opened the `Austria Weeks` in the Nieman Marcus department store in Dallas. In a discussion with Dr Leitner, Kreisky mentioned the great enthusiasm of the visitors for the guitar and the autograph score.

Dr Leitner then made the decision to present both items in Canada too before Christmas. The owner of the largest department store in Ottawa, Lawrence Freiman, agreed to take over the costs for the transport and to exhibit the two items in a shop window of his store for a week. Dr Carleton Smith brought them to Ottawa by plane in person. The newspaper reports particularly highlighted that the guitar and carol were being presented together abroad for the first time. They were both insured for a total of $ 1,000,000. On 23 November, the Canadian Minister of Culture Maurice Lamontagne opened the small exhibition along with Ambassador Franz Leitner. In his address, Dr Leitner called this a Christmas greeting from Austria to Canada. The good presentation and skilful PR measures generated extensive media interest in newspapers, radio and television and ensured the exhibition was a great success in Canada.

After this excursion to Ottawa, Dr Smith brought the guitar and song sheet back to New York and Hollywood where both were part of a Christmas show of Bing Crosby. In it, Bing told the story of how `Silent Night` came about and also played the instrument as he told the story. On Christmas Day, around 40 million Americans saw the guitar and autograph score on the television.

The Mohr guitar in Ottawa

From New York to Berlin

The two items were scheduled to return to Hallein on 20 December 1965. But Berlin's mayor at the time, Willi Brandt, wanted to use the unique opportunity to show the two precious items to the people of Berlin before the Christmas festivities. Seeing as they were already on the move, a brief interruption of their journey in Berlin would not make much difference. In a letter, he asked the municipality of Hallein for permission to exhibit the guitar and autograph score in West Berlin, a request that was also granted.

On 21 and 22 December, the people of West Berlin were able to view both originals in the Schöneberg Town Hall. Standing next to the guitar, Willi Brandt sent a message of greetings, translated by 41 domestic and foreign television stations into 14 languages, out into the world. In it, he expressed the desire for the message of the song `Silent Night` to be heard everywhere. No other Christmas carol spreads the notion of peace of Christmas Eve better than this simple carol.

The two originals arrived back in Hallein on 24 December. Dr Carlton Smith handed them over to the mayor, Josef Brandauer, and the dean Johann Rasp.

The `almost trip` to the Expo in Montreal

It was only one year later, in 1966, when Hallein municipality again received a letter asking them to provide the guitar and the autograph score for the Expo in Montreal in 1967. The Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce was planning to exhibit it in the Austrian Pavilion. In return, the Chamber promised to pay for all costs and to ensure reporting in the press and on television.

But the Hallein municipality had learned from the first trip made by the guitar and autograph score. They also wanted a share of the marketing earnings. The terms and conditions that they stipulated for the loan permit conclusions on how skilfully the two items were marketed in America and how lucrative the business was. It was requested that the two originals were to be kept under lock and key and were not allowed to be removed from the display cabinets for any reporting or television recordings without the consent from the municipality. Only a person appointed for this purpose was allowed to touch the items. Per television programme, a fee of $ 350 was to be paid to the municipality for every newspaper report and $ 100 for every picture. Facsimile prints of the score and their sale, as was the case during the last visit to the USA, were only to be made if 50% of the proceeds went to the municipality. The guitar was not to be played under any circumstances. Both items were to be protected from strong light and were not allowed to be touched by unauthorised persons. This casts a clear light on the circumstances under which both originals were passed around and marketed in America and Canada over a period of many months.

These conditions could not be met by the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce and they made do with exhibiting a facsimile of the autograph score.

The second trip to America

In 1976, America celebrated the bicentenary of its independence. The President of the National Arts Foundation of New York and music researcher Carleton Smith was seeking loan exhibits from foreign governments for exhibitions to be staged during the celebrations. He contacted Ernst Penninger, the head of the Celtic Museum, asking to borrow the guitar and the autograph score for exhibitions in America. In his letter, he also emphasised that both President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty had expressed the wish during a meeting to see these two originals.

They were to be exhibited at 17 different institutions.

  • Morgan Library in New York,
  • Lincoln Center in New York
  • Smithsonian Institute in Washington
  • John F. Kennedy Center New York,
  • University of Chicago Library,
  • Houston Arts Museum,
  • Los Angeles County Museum,
  • San Francisco Opera Association,
  • Lilly Library in Indiana University in Bloomington
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • Arts Club Chicago
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Boston Museum of Fine Art
  • St. Louis Museum of Fine Art
  • Dallas Museum of Fine Art
  • De Young Museum in San Francisco
  • Fogg Museum of Harvard University

The terms and conditions of the exhibition were defined by the lender, the Celtic Museum in Hallein, for the individual exhibition venues, and accepted by their authorised representatives. The correspondence on these agreements has not survived.

A loan for six months was planned; 20 December was scheduled as the deadline for the return. The costs for insurance and transport amounted to $ 5,120 which were paid for by the National Arts Foundation. Both items were insured for a total of Schilling 1 million. Difficulties arose in June as the Morgan Library and the Boston Museum were already fully booked until the end of the year. New institutions had to be found for the presentation of the guitar and the score. The date of the beginning of June that was originally planned for the transportation to America could not be met. It was not until the end of July that Dr Smith travelled to Hallein to collect the two originals.

The whereabouts of the two items on loan can be gleaned only from a few reports in American newspapers and brief articles in the `Halleiner Zeitung`. Film and television recordings were permitted; Bing Crosby also played on the guitar again, and he was not the only one. Music researcher Carleton Smith took possession of the guitar and the sheet of music as if they were his own property. During the exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute, he took the autograph score in his hands in front of the press, showed it around and played a few notes on the guitar. This was presumably frequently the case as the two items were shown at numerous exhibitions. The requirements for showing the items on loan could not have been as strict as in 1967, or they were simply not complied with.

On 22 December 1976, the guitar and autograph score arrived back in Hallein again. Dr Smith handed both over to the mayor Rudolph Müller in the town hall. The guitarist Franz Voggenberger checked that the instrument was in good condition. The entire ceremony to mark the return of the instrument was filmed by German television. Around 80 million visitors are said to have seen the two originals at the various exhibition venues.

The guitar promotes Berlin

The popularity of the Mohr guitar also helped in tourism advertising. In Berlin on Wednesday, 14 December 1977, the Tourist Office of the Province of Salzburg presented the Tennengau region as a winter holiday destination. Hofrat Werner Opitz, Director of Tourism in the Province of Salzburg, and the Chairman of Tennengau Visitor Service, Ing. Karl Rödhammer, were given permission to take the guitar along with them to this event. During a press conference, they presented the individual regions and as a special Christmas greeting the instrument on which `Silent Night` was played for the first time. This event attracted great interest from German radio and television. The instrument arrived back at the museum just before Christmas. The guitar has never been on loan since then and is no longer played either.

A second `Mohr guitar`

In 2015, Michael Höflmayr from Hallstatt asked the Celtic Museum whether he could build a replica of the guitar. It was to be his work for his master's certificate at the technical college school for string instruments in Hallstadt. The town of Hallein agreed and the replica was created in a collaboration in which the town made a financial contribution. As an exception to the rule, it was permitted to remove the guitar from the display cabinet and examine it.

Mr Höflmayr has agreed to his insights from the replica being used here, for which I am very grateful to him. Guitars with the shape and scale of the Mohr guitar were built from around 1800 onwards. They thus differ from the previous smaller baroque guitars that only had five strings. The black stained neck with German neck form is also typical. From the mid-19th century onwards, the Romantic guitars were replaced by the larger Spanish guitars. The instrument has a similar shape and scale to the Romantic guitars.

When the instrument was measured, it was not possible to establish who made it. After some research on external contour and comparisons with historic dimensions, Höflmayr surmises that it comes from Saxony. At the start of the 19th century, there was a tradition of instrument making there. He was therefore able to date the Mohr guitar to the early 19th century. On 25 November 2016, the birthday of the composer of `Silent Night`, the replica, playable guitar will be handed over to its owner, the municipality of Hallein.

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