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O Holy Night

Stories Behind the Music: "O Holy Night"

"O Holy Night" remains one of the world's most beloved Christmas carols, with uplifting lyrics and melody. The lyrics were written by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), a resident of Roquemaure, France (located a few miles north of the historic city of Avignon). Cappeau was a wine merchant and mayor of the town, as well as an occasional writer of poetry. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked Cappeau when his parish priest, shortly before Cappeau embarked on a business trip, asked him to pen a poem for Christmas mass. In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France's capital city, Cappeau considered the priest's request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, "Cantique de Noel" had been completed.

Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his "Cantique de Noel" was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician's hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help, when he arrived in Paris. Adams was an acquaintance of Monsieur and Madame Laurey, who were friends of Cappeau. The son of a well-known classical musician, Adams had studied in the Paris conservatoire. Adams was at the peak of his career, having written his masterpiece, Giselle, only a few years before, in 1841. He was also the composer of over eighty operatic stage works. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg. As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adams, the words of "Cantique de Noel" represented a day he didn't celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau's beautiful words. Adams' finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1847, in Roquemaure.

Initially, "Cantique de Noel" was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. However, the song's popularity declined after its initial acceptance, based on the reputations of the lyricist and composer. Late in his life, Cappeau left the church and became an active part of the socialist movement. He was described as a social radical, a freethinker, a socialist, and a non-Christian. Church leaders also discovered that Adams was a Jew, and the song--which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France--was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the Church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed "Cantique de Noel" as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and "total absence of the spirit of religion." Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it.

Fortunately, more rational perspectives have prevailed. By 1855, the carol had been published in London, and has been translated into many languages. The best known English translation is " O Holy Night" authored by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), a Unitarian minister, an American music critic and journalist who made his home at the Transcendentalist community of Brook Farm, Massachusetts. Dwight felt that this wonderful Christmas song needed to be introduced to America, and he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: "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." The text supported Dwight's own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Journal of Music, Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War. By coincidence, Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts the same year as Dwight published his translation.

There is an unsubstantiated (but frequently repeated) story that this carol figured prominently on Christmas Eve, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. The story goes that, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang, "Minuit, Chretiens, c'est l'heure solennelle ou L'Homme Dieu descendit jusqu'a nous," the beginning of "Cantique de Noel." After completing all three verses, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with, "Vom Himmel noch, da komm' ich her. Ich bring' euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring' ich so viel, Davon ich sing'n und sagen will," the beginning of Martin Luther's robust Christmas hymn, "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come." The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once again embracing "Cantique de Noel" in holiday services.

Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison, did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man's voice was broadcast over the airwaves: "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed," he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would. Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle, hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel. Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn't have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played "O Holy Night," the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, Fessenden read another selection from the book of Luke: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will." The Christmas program was picked up as far south as Norfolk, Virginia; when the program was repeated on New Year's Eve, it was heard as far away as the West Indies.

Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, "O Holy Night" has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the entertainment industry's most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work--requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior--has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created. The lyrics are reprinted below.

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt His worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder beams a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees! Oh, 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 came the wise men from the Orient land

The King of Kings lay in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend
He knows our need
To our weakness no stranger
Behold your King! before the lowly bend!
Behold your King! before Him 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 rise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord
Then ever, ever praise we
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim
His pow'r and glory ever more proclaim