Wednesday, December 26, 2007

O Holy Night.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wise men from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is 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 he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

For the fifth year running O Holy Night has been voted Britain’s favorite Christmas carol. Apparently, its latest moment of fame came when it was sung by runner-up Rhydian Roberts in the reality show ‘X Factor’ final.
The full list of the nation’s favorite carols goes as follows:
1 O Holy Night
2 Silent Night
3 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
4 In The Bleak Midwinter – Darke
5 O Come, All Ye Faithful
6 Once In Royal David’s City
7 In The Bleak Midwinter – Holst
8 O Come, O Come Emmanuel
9 O Little Town Of Bethlehem
10 Coventry Carol

The strange and fascinating story of "O Holy Night" began in France, yet eventually made its way around the world. This seemingly simple song, inspired by a request from a clergyman, would not only become one of the most beloved anthems of all time, It became an anthem for a social revolution in America and it would mark a technological revolution that would forever change the way people were introduced to music.

On January 10, 1847, in succession to Father Maurice Gilles who had died on Oct. 18, 1846, Father Eugene Nicolas Petitjean was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Roquemaure. Roquemaure, a small village of fewer than 5000 souls, is located in South East France at the heart of the vineyards of one of the five southernmost vintages of the Côtes du Rhône. Father Petitjean asked a local poet, Placide Cappeau, for a Christmas song. Cappeau was the commissionaire of wines in this small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance and something of a free-thinker, Placide would not have been everyone’s first choice to write a song for the Christmas mass – but perhaps Petitjean, a newcomer, did not know that. Nevertheless, the poet was honored to share his talents with the church. During a business trip to Paris on contemplating the first few chapters of the book of Luke he composed his "Cantique de Noel" between Macon and Dijon. The singer, Madame Laurey, was a friend of the poet and had worked with the composer Adolphe Adam, and she asked him to write some music for the hymn so that she could perform it. Though a Jew for whom the birth of Christ must have seemed a heretical concept, he accepted the commission and she performed the song for the first time just three weeks later in the college of Roquemaure during midnight mass on December 25, 1847, accompanied by at the organ by Mrs. Blairac.

Minuit, chrétiens,
C’est l’heure solennelle
Où l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux,
Attends ta délivrance!
Noël! Noël!
Voici le Rédempteur!
Noël! Noël!
Voici le Rédempteur!

Le Rédempteur
A brisé toute entrave:
La terre est libre et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un Frère où n’était qu’un esclave;
L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaˆnait le fer.
Qui Lui dira notre reconnaissance?
C’est pour nous tous qu’Il naˆt,
Qu’Il souffre et meurt.
Peuple debout,
Chante ta délivrance!
Noël! Noël!
Chantons le Rédempteur!
Noël! Noël!
Chantons le Rédempteur!

Placide Cappeau was born on October 25, 1808 at 8 pm at Roquemaure (Gard). He was the son of Mathieu Cappeau, cooper, and Agathe Louise Martinet. At first he succeeded his father in the family business (operating some vines and a cooperage), but this became difficult because of a childhood accident when he had lost most of his right hand and he turned to working with his brain. At the age of eight, playing with a firearm with one of his friends, a man named Brignon, his hand had been so damaged that it required partial amputation. With the financial assistance of Mr. Brignon, who paid for half of his tuition fees, Placide, attended first a community school in Nimes and then the Royal College of Avignon where despite his disability he won first prize for drawing in 1825. With a Bachelor of Letters in his pocket, he studied law in Paris and obtained a degree in 1831.

But Placide was a socialist and a republican and anti-clerical to boot. French history in the Nineteenth Century is complicated, but within two months of the first performance of Minuit, Chrétiens, the French king had been forced to abdicate and the Second Republic had been established. Nicknamed the "Bourgeois Monarch", King Louis Philippe sat at the head of a moderately liberal state controlled mainly by educated elites. The year 1846 saw a financial crisis and bad harvests, and the following year an economic depression. A poor railroad system hindered aid efforts, and the peasant rebellions that resulted were forcefully crushed. Perhaps a third of Paris was on the dole. "Dangerous" writers proliferated such as Louis Blanc ("The right to work") and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ("Property is theft!", "God is evil"); secret societies such as the Saint-Simonians sprang up.

Because political gatherings and demonstrations were outlawed in France, activists began to hold a series of fund-raising banquets , the Campagne des banquets, to circumvent this restriction and provide a legal outlet for popular criticism of the regime. The campaign began in July 1847, and lasted until February 1848, Louis Philippe forbade such banquets. As a result, the people revolted, helping to unite the efforts of the popular Republicans and the liberal Orleanists, who turned their back on Louis-Philippe.

Barricades were erected, and fighting broke out between the citizens and the municipal guards. On February 23rd, Prime Minister Guizot resigned. Upon hearing the news of Guizot's resignation, a large crowd gathered outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An officer ordered the crowd not to pass, but people in the front of the crowd were being pushed by the rear. The officer ordered his men to fix bayonets, probably wishing to avoid shooting. However, in what is widely regarded as an accident, a soldier discharged his musket, which resulted in the rest of the soldiers firing into the crowd. Fifty two people were killed.

Paris was soon a barricaded city. Omnibuses were turned into barricades and thousands of trees were felled. Fires were set, and angry citizens began converging on the royal palace. King Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England.

Alas for Placide, the Second Republic was a failure. Universal male suffrage was decalared, but as usual the people elected the wrong man. As usual, the left was beset by internal dissension and as usual for France, the people called for a strong man. The strong man was another Napoleon, this time Napoleon III. Napoleon played a skillful game, pitting one faction against another and after four years he was declared Emperor, and the Second Republic was at an end; the Second Empire begun.

With Placide Cappeau having walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders having discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, 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."

Cappeau died at age 69 on Aug. 8, 1877 at Roquemaure.

Adolphe Adam must be best remembered for his music for the ballet Giselle. Born in Paris in 1803, he was the son of Louis Adam, a native of Alsace, and founder of the French school of piano playing. Louis Adam taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1797 until 1842. Adolphe Adam had varied schooling, eventually as a boarder in a parental attempt to induce better application. After private coaching, however, he was able in 1819 to enter the organ class of Benoist at the Conservatoire. Nevertheless, as he later admitted, his chief ability at this time was in improvisation. He failed to win the expected Grand Prix de Rome, taking instead the deuxième Grand Prix in 1825 with his setting of Ariane à Naxos. He eked out a living playing triangle at the Gymnase Dramatique. As a composer he began to provide material for vaudevilles. In the 1830s he rapidly made a name for himself and in 1832 was invited to London to provide music for a military spectacle at Covent Garden. It was in 1841 in Paris that Adam enjoyed what has proved his most lasting success with the music for the ballet Giselle ou Les Wilis. After quarreling with the head of the Opera he revived a plan to establish a second opera house in Paris for younger composers. The new theatre of the Opéra-National opened in 1847, after Adam had raised a considerable loan for the project. The time was inopportune. The political disturbances of 1848 led to the closure of the house and to Adam's financial ruin. He was now obliged to earn what living he could from music criticism to meet his immediate needs, but this was not the end of his career as a composer. In 1849, the year of his father’s death, he was appointed professor of composition at the Conservatoire and he continued to compose for the theatre until his death. By 1853 he had paid off his debts but continued working until his sudden death in 1856. In his posthumously published autobiographical sketches he admitted that it was his work as a musician that was his sole passion and pleasure, without which he would have died of boredom. Adolphe Adam is buried there in the Cimetière de Montmartre (Montmartre Cemetery) in Paris.

Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

Not only did this American writer--John Sullivan Dwight--feel that this wonderful Christmas song needed to be introduced to America, 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, Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.

Born May 13, 1813, in Boston, Dwight graduated from Harvard College in 1832. He then began, with some ambivalence, preparation for the Unitarian ministry at Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1836. During his years at the Divinity School, the "new views" of Transcendentalism were beginning to coalesce into a potent critique of Unitarian theology and social ethics. Dwight responded enthusiastically to Ralph Waldo Emerson's regrounding of Unitarian theology in Platonic and Kantian idealism, and to his call for an innovative, non-conformist refashioning of social life.

Transcendentalism began as a protest against the general state of culture and society at the time, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and the doctrine of the Unitarian church which was taught at Harvard Divinity School. Among Transcendentalists' core beliefs was an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.
Prominent Transcendentalists included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, , the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For a time, many of the Transedentalists, among them Dwight, lived at the Brook Farm Transcendentalist utopian commune. Like most Transcendentalists, Dwight was fascinated with German culture, especially the poetry and aesthetic theories of Goethe and Schiller and the symphonies of Beethoven.

Dwight served as director of the Brook Farm School and wrote a regular column on music for their journal The Harbinger. He also taught music and organized musical and theatrical events, the heart of the commune's social life. He embraced the cause of "Association" fervently, and in an 1844 lecture, expounded the movement's constant theme: "Development by harmonious relations, based on the supposition that every individual nature is pre-adapted to Universal Unity." Dwight found a strong consonance between the commune's social cause and his passion for advancing music as essential to human education and expression.

Brook Farm died of debt and dissension in 1847. Dwight settled with several Brook Farmers in a cooperative house in Boston and began to try to piece together a career in musical journalism. In 1852, with some support from the Harvard Musical Association, he founded Dwight's Journal of Music. It became the most influential musical publication of 19th century America. His labors on the Journal occupied him for the rest of his life.

He became the foremost musical critic in America. He largely established Beethoven's reputation in America and he supported the great Classic composers, Bach, Mozart and Handel, while steadfastly opposing the modern works of Wagner, Berlioz and Rubinstein.

In 1855 he translated from the French, the carol O Holy Night. It is not a strict translation. The third verse would be something like this: The Liberator has broken every shackle. The earth is free and heaven is open. He sees a brother who there was nothing but a slave. Love now unites those who had been chained together by iron. By making it more overtly abolitionist as: Chains shall He break for the slave is out brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease. Dwight was making a political statement and indulging in what would now be termed ‘realized eschatology’ Dwight died in 1893.

Adam 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. Although Marconi had previously made radio broadcasts of Morse code, 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, so did the broadcast--but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, "O Holy Night" has been sung millions of times in churches all over the world. From 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 song--requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who was a socialist and republican as well as opposed to the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, 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 and broadcast as an electronic experiment--has become one of the most beautiful and popular pieces of music ever created.


Friendly Curmudgeon said...

O Holy Night has been my favorite Christmas hymn since I was a small boy. I sang in the local Methodist church youth choir in a suburb of Washington DC and found out I really could not sing when I auditioned for a solo part in the hymn.

Whne I was in college and had started attending Friends (Quaker) Meetings for Worship, I went for a Meeting for Worship at the Atlantic City Friends School (now long gone, replaced for the most part by casino buildings, the former headmaster is a good
F(f)riend, who is member of my meeting further north up the Jersey coast). Near Christmas, I was home in Northfield NJ from Princeton. During that meeting, n the midst of silent worship, an elderly man rose and said he wasn't sure how the Friends in Philadelphia would take to music being played during worship but the Spirit had so moved him. He walked to tne piano (meeting for worship took place in the school auditorium), sat down, and played and sang O Holy Night, It was beautiful and not less because during worship I had been singing the song to myself!

Ny understanding of philosophic and religious history is not the best but reading about the Trancendentalists in your post, I felt a certain resonance with my own Quaker-based beliefs. I am more of a universalist than a "Christocentric" Quaker, but know that Jesus was the true embodiment of the Spirit, yet not the only to walk the earth. The words, "Truly he taught us to love one another" says it all!

Peace to yuo and yours at this most blessed of seasons.

F. Wayne van Saun, MD, CLL survivor for 10+ years, retired from pediatrics, currently editor/medical expert for Digitas Health.

See my Christmas post at

justme said...

I just now finally had a moment to sit down and read this one and found it especially interesting! When you described Reginald Fessenden reading Luke 2 and playing "O Holy Night" on his violin for (what he hoped was) the first broadcast ever heard over the airwaves, I was imagining the reactions of all those listening. Thank you so much for the time you put into posting all these Christmas Carol histories. I enjoyed them immensely! (And as an added bonus, I am no longer ignorant regarding Boxing Day.:)