BEHIND THE MUSIC: O Holy Night


O Holy Night
Lyrics by Placide Cappeau (1847) and John S. Dwight (1855)
Music by Adolphe Adam (1847)

Largely regarded as one an essential Christmas hymn with a breathtakingly beautiful melody and inspiring lyrics, O Holy Night is the song that almost wasn’t. This beloved carol faced so many hardships and improbabilities along the way that it’s almost a miracle that we are singing it in 2019.

It all began with a gun left out and found by two little eight year old boys. That’s how Placide Cappeau tragically lost his right hand and avoided following in his father’s footsteps as a barrel maker. Instead, because of the accident he was able to pursue his schooling where he developed a love for art, literature, and law. Later in life Cappeau became mayor of his hometown, a wine merchant, and a part-time local poet.

In 1847 Cappeau was asked by his church priest to compose a poem to be read as part of their Christmas Eve service. Along the bumpy road to Paris, the one-handed poet put pen to paper. By the time he arrived in Paris, he had mostly completed his work entitled “Song for Christmas.” It was soon to become known by its opening French words “Midnight, Christians.”

Cappeau met up with the famed French composer, Adolphe Adam, in Paris three weeks before Christmas. Adam was moved by the inspiring lyrics to Cappeau’s work and began straightaway composing the equally inspiring music to accompany the lyrics. On Christmas Eve, 1847, the joint piece by Cappeau and Adam was performed by French opera singer, Emily Laurey, in the small town of Roquemaure.

The song “Midnight, Christians” was an instant success. It was an ear worm of sorts and quickly spread throughout France.

But that’s not the end of the story. Some of the more powerful political and religious leaders in France were troubled by the somewhat socialist lyrics of the song. Cappeau himself was an “on-the-fence” church member with growing socialist political leanings. Cappeau eventually left, or was forced out of, the church altogether. Furthermore, Adolphe Adam was found to be of Jewish ancestry. There’s little evidence that this is actually true, but in that day the simple accusation was enough. These combined facts led to an attempt by the church to ban the song. But we all know this song about God descending to us as a man to release us from our bondage could not be chained up.
In 1855 the song made its way to the US where it was translated into the English version that we still sing to this day. The translator was John S. Dwight, a Unitarian pastor, music critic, and collector of hymns. The impact of this song in mid-1800s America cannot be understated. Just think how this line would have sounded in a pre-Civil War context: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease.”
That’s still not the end of the story.

Fast forward about fifty years to 1906. A brand new technological wonder has been unveiled to the world - the radio. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fassenden played a song on his violin over the radio for the first time in human history. The song he chose to play that night, the first song ever to be broadcast over radio waves, was the song composed by a one-handed, French socialist wine merchant and his Jewish friend composer - the improbable song that almost wasn’t - O Holy Night.



English Translation by John Sullivan Dwight:
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.

   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.

Original French Lyrics Translated into English:
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.

   People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
   Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
   Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,

   It is to your pride that God preaches.
   Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
   Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those whom iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

   People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
   Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
   Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

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