By Douglas D. Anderson
Words: Cantique de Noël or Minuit, Chrétiens (“Midnight, Christians”)
Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), 1847; translated from French to English by John Sullivan Dwight, Esq., ca 1858 (1813-1893).
Cappeau, a wine merchant of Roquemaure, France, 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 many other operatic and theatrical works.
Also using this tune is ‘Oh Solemn Hour! When Hearts Were Lowly Bending.’
Source: Gems of English Song: A Collection of Very Choice Songs, Duets and Quartets; with an Accompaniment for the Piano-forte (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1875), pp. 206-208.
- 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 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! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy 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 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 weakness no stranger!
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King! 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 raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!
Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory, evermore proclaim!
The Three Tenors Christmas (1999): Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavorotti perform ‘O Holy Night/Cantique de Noel’with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and renowned choir.
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, Chrétiens.”
Note: I’ve again received an email concerning the spelling of M. Cappeau’s last name. Some authoritative sources give “Cappeau.” Other equally authoritative sources give “Clappeau.” I will, again, research this issue. In the meantime, here is a biographical note (in French) of M. Cappeau and a note concerning the music to this carol by M. Adam (also in French).
According to William Studwell, when Cappeau arrived in Paris, he took the poem to the composer Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), 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. In our own age of strategic PR thinking, where people are masters in communication that doesn’t always address these issues, it’s good to remember charity, kindness and the awe described in this song.
‘O Holy Night,’ Mahalia Jackson, from Christmas with Mahalia (1968)
And it was falsely alleged that 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 had been translated into many languages. The best known English translation is “O Holy Night,” authored by John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893), a Unitarian minister and American music critic and journalist who made his home at the Transcendentalist community of Brook Farm, MA. It has been reported that this translation was first published 1855 in his Page 1 from the October 7, 1954 edition of Dwight’s “Journal Of Music”Journal of Music, and was reprinted in songbooks of the period. Further research indicates that it might have been published in April, 1858, by the J. H. Hidley Company, a music publisher in Albany, New York. That research is continuing.
Interestingly, it is rarely found in modern hymnals. In my modest collection of about three dozen, it is only found in three hymnals (one of which was a significant alteration of Dwight’s translation; see John W. Peterson and Norman Johnson, compilers, Praise! Our Songs and Hymns. Singspiration Music of the Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI., 1982, Hymn #183, “O Holy Night,” revised by Avis B. Christiansen, copyright 1975, 1979).
Cappeau’s strongly abolitionist views are 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.
It is interesting that Dwight, like Cappeau, held strong anti-slavery views. By coincidence, Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts the same year as it is believed that Dwight purportedly published his translation. A fuller biography by John Robinson of Dwight can be found at the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (UUHS): Biography of John Sullivan Dwight.
An additional translation of Cantique de Noël can be found at Wikipedia: O Holy Night. The first line is “O! Holy night! The stars, their gleams prolonging.” The name of the translator is not stated.
‘O Holy Night,” Jewel, from Sessions at West 54th
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, unexpectedly, a French soldier jumped out of his trench and sang Cantique de Noël. Moved by the song, the Germans did not fire upon the French soldier, and inspired by the sentiment, a German soldier emerged from his trench and sang Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, a popular Christmas hymn from his country (“From Heaven Above To Earth I Come”). The beautiful Austrian carol, Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, was also reportedly sung by soldiers in trenches on both sides.
A similar exchange would occur during World War I on Christmas Eve, 1914. See: A Carol from Flanders.
First Radio Broadcast, 1906
This carol had the distinction of being the first one ever played live on a Christmas radio broadcast. That first broadcast was conducted by Canadian Reginald Fessenden (1866-1931) from his Brant Rock, Massachusetts station to ships at sea on December 24, 1906, with the assistance of his wife Helen, his secretary Miss Bent and his associate Mr. Stein.
At 9 p.m., Fessenden began his broadcast playing Handel’s “Largo” (presumably from his opera Serse or Xerxes) on an Ediphone phonograph. He then played Gounod’s “O Holy Night” on his violin, singing the last verse as he played. Finally, he read a selection from the book of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest–and on earth peace to men of good will.” Originally, Miss Brant and Mrs. Fessenden were to read the selection; stage fright, however, intervened. The group completed the broadcast by wishing their listeners a Merry Christmas and then saying that they proposed to broadcast again New Year’s Eve.
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.
Originally published at Douglas D. Anderson’s essential website The Hymns and Carols of Christmas and reprinted here by permission. Mr. Anderson, a former bluegrass musician, continues to update his website (which now contains more than 2,800 stories of Christmas carols and hymns, all thoroughly researched and sourced) under great duress: he has survived an apparent heart attack and two bouts of Legionnaire’s Disease and now suffers daily migraines that keep him bedridden for most of the day, every day. “My condition is gradually deteriorating,” he writes in his website’s About the Author section, “but I like to use an analogy: if given a bushel basket of lemons, I can do two things. I can either bit and moan about my terrible luck, or I can make lemonade. I choose the latter; notwithstanding disability, I can still live a full and fulfilling life.” Now residing in Decatur, Alabama, Mr. Anderson is licensed as an amateur radio operator and also watches the weather as a National Weather Service SKYWARN “storm spotter.” He attends St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. In addition to assembling the largest collection of Christmas carols ever printed (privately) in the English language, he has edited more than two dozen volumes of Christmas poetry and prayer. His motto? “I’ve found that if we want to do good, we’d best not wait until tomorrow, for tomorrow may never come.”