Saturday, December 22, 2012

O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël)

His law is love and His gospel is peace . . .

The Christmas season is the height of the year for sacred music and the singing of hymns. Among the most popular and oft-recorded is the one known in the English-speaking world as O Holy Night, and to French speakers as Cantique de Noël.  No other hymn captures the message of Christmas more beautifully or fully, and none has a more interesting history.
It all started in 1847, when Placide Cappeau (1808–1877), a wine merchant and occasional poet living in Roquemaure, France, was asked  by a parish priest to write a Christmas poem. Cappeau, though not a regular churchgoer, agreed to try.  On December 3, in a carriage about halfway to Paris where he was headed on a business trip, Cappeau was inspired to write the poem Minuit, Chrétiens (Midnight, Christians). When Cappeau arrived in Paris he took the poem to an acquaintance, the composer Adolphe Adam (1803-1856)--who had composed the music for the famous ballet Giselle in 1841--and asked him to set Minuit, Chrétiens to music.  Adam agreed and wrote the tune in a few days, and the resulting hymn Cantique de Noël received its premier at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1847, in Roquemaure.
Placide Cappeau
Adolphe Adam
The hymn soon became one of the most beloved hymns in France, and was incorporated into many Roman Catholic Christmas services. Incredibly, however, it was later denounced by the French church when Placide Cappeau abandoned Catholicism and became a socialist, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adam was of Jewish descent. One French bishop went so far as to criticize the hymn for its supposed "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion." Nevertheless, Cantique de Noël remained popular among the French people.

John S. Dwight
By 1855, Cappeau's text had been translated into English by John Sullivan Dwight (1813–1893), a Unitarian minister and America's first influential classical music critic. Now titled O Holy Night, the hymn quickly found favor in this country, especially in the North during the American Civil War.

Reading Dwight's text, it's easy to see why people have been inspired by this hymn for more than 150 years: its affirmation of of hope and the promise of redemption; its celebration of the miracle of God come to earth and made man like us; and its declaration of a new kingdom of love, peace, and freedom for all God's children.

    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,
    'Til 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 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 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 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.

It's interesting to note how Placide Cappeau's strongly abolitionist views, which were shared by John S. Dwight, are clearly expressed in the third and fourth lines of the hymn's final stanza.

There is a legend that on Christmas Eve in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his trench and sang Cantique de Noël.  Moved by this brave gesture, the Germans did not fire upon the French soldier; instead, a German soldier emerged from his trench and sang Luther's Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (From Heaven Above To Earth I Come) a
popular Christmas hymn in his country.  According to the story, fighting stopped for the next 24 hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas Day.

Perhaps the most remarkable story about O Holy Night is one that is indisputably true: it was the second piece of music ever broadcast on radio, and the first musical performance ever broadcast live.  On Christmas Eve in 1906, Canadian-born inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden broadcast the first AM radio program, which started with Fessenden reading the Biblical account of the birth of Christ from Luke Chapter 2 over the air, followed by a phonograph recording of Handel's aria "Ombra mai fu," and concluding with Fessenden playing O Holy Night on the violin while singing the final verse.  Broadcast from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, the program was picked up by radio operators on board a number of ships along the Atlantic northeast coast and from shore stations as far south as Norfolk, Virginia.

From that humble beginning, O Holy Night has become one of the most treasured hymns of Christmas, the world over. Watch this video for an excellent summary of its history:

Here is a remarkably beautiful rendition of O Holy Night by the all-female Irish musical ensemble Celtic Woman:

The incomparable Nat King Cole recorded O Holy Night in 1960; this rendition is presented in the lovely video below:


And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord
shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you
is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:8-11


  1. Beautifully put together! I was doing the same for Facebook not knowing this was here. I will add this link.

  2. This is incredible story.. thanks for sharing.. I would consider updating the version with this one from the now extinct American Boychoir, which for me is the best performance I have heard of this carol: