A brief history of ‘O Holy Night,’ the rousing Christmas hymn that garnered mixed reviews

“It might be a good thing to discard this piece whose popularity is becoming unhealthy,” one early critic wrote.

Twenty-six years ago, George W. Hunt, S.J., then editor in chief of America, wrote that “O Holy Night” was one of his favorites among Yuletide songs, modestly adding: “I’ve sung it countless times in choir (the dull second tenor part).”

Our fond memories of “O Holy Night” are closely associated with the familiar English words translated from the original French by the Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight. Former director of the school at the 19th-century Brook Farm commune in Massachusetts, Dwight witnessed the conversion to Catholicism of a number of his fellow commune members, including Isaac Hecker—later a Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Paulist Fathers, the first religious community of priests created in North America.

Whether this religious aura influenced Dwight’s 1855 translation is debatable. Undocumented legends have persistently surrounded “O Holy Night,” including that trench-fighting during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (or alternately, World War I) temporarily ceased while French troops sang the song to their opponents on Christmas Eve.

A better documented, if generally overlooked, instance of the nurturing power of “O Holy Night” was reported in The Marine Corps Times in December 2004. In Fallujah, Iraq, to convey a message of love from home, the Rev. Ron Camarda, a Catholic priest and Marine Reserve major, sang “O Holy Night” at the bedside of a dying American Marine, wounded on a military mission.

Dwight’s healing, pious and inspiring words tell us, as Father Hunt reflected, about the light brought by the birth of Jesus. By 1885, Dwight’s lyrics had become so accepted that Hart Pease Danks, a choir leader and songwriter best remembered for the tear-jerking ballad “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” produced his own adaptation of them in a version entitled “O Night Divine.” In all fairness, the result could not be called an improvement.

The hymn’s healing, pious and inspiring words tell us about the light brought by the birth of Jesus.

Yet the competing adaptations by John Sullivan Dwight and Danks shared the quality of being unilaterally upbeat, much unlike the original French song, “Minuit, Chrétiens” (“Midnight, Christians”), sometimes called “Cantique de Noël.”

“Minuit, Chrétiens” began as a French poem by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and leftist from Roquemaure, a small town in the Gard department of southern France. Educated by Jesuit instructors at the Collège Royal in Avignon, Cappeau penned the complex text in 1843 on the occasion of the restoration of stained glass at the local church in Roquemaure.

His poem begins didactically, as if lecturing a crowd: “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour when the Human God descended to us, to erase original sin and cease the wrath of his Father.” Cappeau addresses the “powerful” of his day, “proud with [their] grandeur,” ordering them to humble themselves before God. Nothing of this discourse survives in the dulcet verses of the “O Holy Night” we sing today.

Having ordered listeners to kneel, “Minuit, Chrétiens” then instructs them to rise, in a way similar to the later left-wing anthem “L’Internationale.”

“Minuit, Chrétiens” began as a French poem by Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant and leftist from Roquemaure, a small town in the Gard department of southern France. Educated by Jesuit instructors at the Collège Royal in Avignon, Cappeau penned the complex text in 1843 on the occasion of the restoration of stained glass at the local church in Roquemaure.

His poem begins didactically, as if lecturing a crowd: “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour when the Human God descended to us, to erase original sin and cease the wrath of his Father.” Cappeau addresses the “powerful” of his day, “proud with [their] grandeur,” ordering them to humble themselves before God. Nothing of this discourse survives in the dulcet verses of the “O Holy Night” we sing today.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/6v7RiOjM0thVlbvxyenbSr

Having ordered listeners to kneel, “Minuit, Chrétiens” then instructs them to rise, in a way similar to the later left-wing anthem “L’Internationale.”

Le Dictionnaire du Foyer Catholique (published in Paris in 1956) declared that the song “has been expunged from many dioceses due to the emphatic aspect of its lyrics as much as the music itself, and the contrast they provide with the holiday liturgy, so lovely and grand in its simplicity.”

Yet despite these and other objections decrying the music of “Minuit, Chrétiens” as facile and banal, its international renown continued to grow.

Ecclesiastical concern about the popularity and content of “Minuit, Chrétiens” was reproduced when it was imported to Canada in 1858 by Ernest Gagnon, a folklorist, composer and organist. Gagnon had attended a Midnight Mass the previous year at the Church of Saint-Roch in Paris, where a treble voice sang “Minuit, Chrétiens.” After Gagnon popularized the song in Canada, a tradition arose that parishes would select a soloist for the Midnight Mass performance of “Minuit, Chrétiens” from among local noteworthies as a special honor.

The song, originally written by Adam to be performed by a retired provincial soprano who had premiered one of his less successful operas in Paris, would likewise first be performed in Canada by a soprano singer. Only later did the song become the province of tenors and baritones. But Adam, as a composer of virtuoso operas, included some exposed high notes that challenge even professional singers, let alone well-meaning amateurs. As a result, congregations in Canada would customarily wait with trepidation for the climactic phrases of the song to see whether notes would be sung sharp or flat.

There is no sign that Adolphe Adam expected he would be remembered principally for “Minuit, Chrétiens,” alongside the ballet “Giselle.” His 1857 memoirs do not even mention it. Yet for generations of “O Holy Night” listeners on Christmas Eve and beyond, he remains indelibly the composer of that one immortal and inspiring song.

Source: A brief history of ‘O Holy Night,’ the rousing Christmas hymn that garnered mixed reviews | America Magazine

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