The Story of O Holy Night

O Holy Night is like the national anthem of Christmas songs. Hauntingly beautiful but so difficult to sing it is often presented a cringe-worthy performances by even the best of singers (Celine Dion is perhaps the best example of one who over-sings the song). Here is a new version, shown as much of the great music of today is as a tale beyond the music, from Gentri:

O Holy Night is a Christmas song of French origin. In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked the man when his parish priest asked him to pen a poem for Christmas mass.

While on a journey he contemplated the night of the Nativity and feeling inspired penned “Cantique de Noel” while in transit.

Reading and re-reading what he had written Cappeau decided that his inspired poem needed the talents of an inspired composer. He gave his lyrics to the famous and talented composer, Adolphe Charles Adams, hoping his talents would do the piece justice.

As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God.

Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to match an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words.

Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France.

But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church.

The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.

John Sullivan Dwight was an American Abolitionist. He came to appreciate the song not only for telling the story of Christ but for the powerful lessons taught in verse 3 of the hymn:

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.

Dwight had the poem translated into English and published in his magazine where it quickly found favor in America, especially in the North.

Try as the church in France might, it could not keep the people from traditionally singing the song on their own every Christmas season. It had become embedded in French Christmas culture.

Years later, long after Composer Adams was dead and Dwight and Cappeau were old men, on Christmas Eve 1906 a mane named Reginald Fessenden — a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison–did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke.

To the listeners of the new technology is may have seemed a miracle to hear a voice from someone they could not see. Perhaps they made the connection of this minor miracle to the miracle of the angels the shepherds saw on that Holy Night of so long ago.

After Fessenden spoke, the first music play on radio airwaves was “O Holy Night”.

The song, of course, is still heard more than a century later. And it continues to inspire.

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