365 Days of Christmas is keeping the spirit alive
all year to enliven your world.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

25 Days of Christmas Songs - Day 6 - O Holy Night

Minuit, Chrétiens ("Midnight, Christians") or Cantique de Noel

Words: Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), 1847;
translated from French to English by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893).
Clappeau, a wine merchant of Roquemaure, France, who wrote poems for his own enjoyment. Dwight was editor of Dwight's Journal of Music.

Music: Adolphe-Charles Adam (1803-1856).
Adam, born in Paris, France, is best known for his ballet Giselle (1841) and his many other operatic and theatrical works.

Sheet Music from Rev. Charles Lewis Hutchins, Carols Old and Carols New (Boston: Parish Choir, 1916), Carol #742
Page1 Page2 Page3 Page4

1. 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 soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks 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, O holy night, O night divine.

2. 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 Orient land
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger;
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

3. 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 pow'r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow'r and glory evermore proclaim!

This carol has been heralded as among the most beautiful of all Christmas carols, with excellent lyrics and a superb melody.

The author of the lyrics was Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), a resident of Roquemaure, located a few miles north of the historic city of Avignon. He was a commissionaire of wines, and an occasional writer of poetry. It is said that Cappeau was about to embark upon a business trip to Paris when the local parish priest asked Cappeau to write a Christmas poem. On December 3, 1847, about halfway to Paris, Cappeau received the inspiration for the poem, "Minuit, Chretiens."

When he arrived in Paris, he took the poem to the composer Adolphe Adam, an acquaintance of M. and Madam Laurey who were friends of Cappeau. Adam 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 80 stage works. Adam wrote the tune in a few days, and the song received its premier at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1847 in Roquemaure.

Notwithstanding its intrinsic beauty and initial success, the song was later attacked by churchmen in Cappeau's native France. The reason was not because of the nature or subject of the song. Rather, the attacks were based on the reputations of the lyricist and composer. Late in his life, Cappeau was described as a social radical, a freethinker, a socialist, and a non-Christian. Indeed, he adopted some of the more extreme political and social views of his era, such as opposition to inequality, slavery, injustice, and other kinds of oppression.

And the composer, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish. That, plus his reputation as a composer of light operatic works and ballets, was deemed incompatible by those churchmen with the composition of a Christian religious song. One French bishop denounced the song for its "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion."

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, MA. It was first published 1855 in his Journal of Music, and was reprinted in songbooks of the period. His strongly abolitionist views were said to have influenced aspects of his free translation, including

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

How interesting that Dwight, like Cappeau, held strong anti-slavery views. By coincidence, Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts the same year as Dwight published his translation.

No comments: