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A carol a day: O Holy Night

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The fifth in our series about Christmas carols.

THIS much-loved Christian song has an unusual background: the words were by an atheist and the music by a man from a Jewish background.

The verses were written in 1847 by an amateur poet named Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), who was mayor of the French town of Roquemaure, a few miles from Avignon. As a boy of eight he lost his right hand while he and a friend were playing with a loaded gun. This put an end to the expectation that he would follow his father into the trade of coopering, or barrel-making. The other boy’s father was so remorseful that he offered to pay half the cost of Placide’s education, and the boy prospered. At the age of 17 he won first prize for drawing at the College Royal d’Avignon (I have been unable to discover if he was naturally left-handed or if he re-trained himself). Subsequently he studied literature, and in 1831 he obtained a law degree in Paris, but he never practised, and became a wine merchant in his home town. Although born and brought up a Catholic, he drifted away from religion, and took to criticising the Catholic clergy. He publicly espoused socialism.

Thus it was a surprise to him and the town when in 1847 the parish priest of Roquemaure asked him to write a poem for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Cappeau accepted the commission and re-read Luke’s gospel to brush up on the Christmas story.

It was in December, during an arduous journey by stagecoach from Avignon to Paris, a distance of some 360 miles (I have read that in those days, travelling night and day with brief stops to change the horses, a stagecoach averaged 10 miles an hour, making the journey 36 hours), that he began writing the poem. It was complete by the time he arrived and he gave it the title Cantique de Noel (Song of Christmas), though it is also known as Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) after its first line.

At the suggestion of the priest, while in Paris Cappeau took his poem to the friend of a friend, the composer Adolphe Adam, and asked him to set it to music. Adam specialised in light opera and is best remembered today for the ballets Giselle and Le Corsaire. He was at the height of his fame, but he agreed to Cappeau’s request. He wrote the tune in a few days and it was duly premiered at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Roquemaure by the opera singer Emily Laurey.

It was an instant success, and was soon being sung all over France.

However the church authorities found out that Cappeau had denounced the Catholic Church and joined the socialist movement, and that Adam had Jewish ancestry. They banned the carol, giving as their reasons ‘its lack of musical taste’ and ‘total absence of the spirit of religion’. Despite this, congregations defied the ban and continued to sing it at Christmas.

It was translated into English in 1855 by American Unitarian clergyman John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), the editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music, under the title O Holy Night. He was pretty free with Cappeau’s words.

This is the literal translation of the first verse:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.

This is Dwight’s version:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

This is the rest of Dwight’s hymn:

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from the Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weaknesses no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

You can see Cappeau’s original verses, the literal translation and Dwight’s version side by side on this Wikipedia page

There is a legend that during a lull in the Franco-Prussian war on December 24, 1870, French troops started singing the carol from their trenches, and in return the German soldiers sang one of Martin Luther’s hymns. The alleged result was a 24-hour truce so that the soldiers on both sides could celebrate Christmas. The story may or may not be true but it is possible that it led to the song’s reinstatement into French churches.

O Holy Night has one more distinction: it was the first song to be featured live on a radio broadcast. Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden played it on the violin, singing the last verse, on December 24, 1906, from his radio station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts.

There are innumerable performances on YouTube and it has been hard to choose a selection.

Here it is by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

This is a lush arrangement by Mack Wilberg performed by The King’s Singers and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I really like this one by the mother-and-daughter duo The Judds:

This is a barbershop version by the Gas House Gang with Ambassadors of Harmony.

I can’t resist these vintage recordings. This is from 1919.

Here is a South Korean string quartet. I chose this partly because of the players’ headwear.

Finally, a video which was sent to me by TCW’s American friend Audre Myers and which gave me the idea to write about this carol. It’s by GENTRI, The Gentlemen Trio. I tried to find out who the actor is but without success.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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