Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Carol Chronicles: O Holy Night

photo courtesy of
The words for today's carol in my series, “Christmas Carol Chronicles”, resulted from a little priestly pressure on a not-so-faithful parishioner.

Imagine with me what the scenario might have been that birthed “O Holy Night”.

FATHER GILLES: Good afternoon, Placide.

PLACIDE: Father Gilles! Good to see you! Are you in need of a case of Placide Cappeau’s wine or do you require my services as mayor?

FATHER GILLES: Neither, Placide. I’ve come to ask a favor of you for the church.

PLACIDE: But, Father, my attendance, as I’m sure you are aware, has been, shall we say, “occasional” at best.

FATHER GILLES: That is why I am offering you this opportunity to serve. I have been told that you are a bit of a poet—quite good, actually. I would like you to write a poem for the Christmas mass.

PLACIDE: I would be honored to, Father. I have an upcoming business trip to Paris. May I give this some thought while I am away?

FATHER GILLES: Certainly! Contact me when you return.

On his trip to Paris Placide Cappeau read the gospel of Luke. He imagined being present on the night Jesus was born. Inspired by these musings, he wrote the poem, "Cantique de Noel.”

While in Paris, Cappeau shared the poem with Emily Laurey, a rising opera star who then approached the composer Adolphe-Charles Adam.

EMILY: Mr. Adam, I have discovered a wonderful poem—a poem that cries out to be sung. I know that you have many such requests, but would you please consider composing music for this poem?

ADOLPHE-CHARLES: Let me have a look at it. This is very good, Emily, very good! But as you know, I am Jewish! I do not even celebrate Christmas.

EMILY: You can do this, Adolphe—I know it in my heart. Please . . . try. I would like to be able to sing this song at Christmas.

ADOLPHE-CHARLES: For you, my friend, I will try.

Life intervened and the debut of this carol took several years. Sadly, Father Gilles did not live to hear his request fulfilled. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1847, Placide Cappeau’s soul-moving words were sung to Adolphe Adam’s hauntingly beautiful tune, "Cantique de Noel", for the first time. The performer was none other than Emily Laurey. A decade later, John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister translated this wonderful Christmas song into English and introduced America to “O Holy Night.”

This carol also holds the distinction of being the first song broadcast over the radio. On Christmas Eve 1906, using a new type of generator, Professor Reginald Fessenden read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus into a microphone —the first time in history a man's voice was carried over the airwaves. Fessenden then picked up his violin and began playing “O Holy Night”. Just imagine the surprise and excitement among radio operators and wireless owners when the first strains of “O Holy Night” emanated from their speakers!

Where did you first hear “O Holy Night”? What makes it special to you?

Merry Christmas!

©2013 Pamela D. Williams