The Humility of “O Holy Night”
The event referred to in this greatest of all-time carol is the birth of the Messiah. Here is a song about the redemption of humanity, always a chart-topper during the Holidays. Poet and wine merchant Placide Cappeau wrote the French original of “O Holy Night”. In 1843, a pillar in his hometown Roquemaure, he was requested to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the new renovation of the organ in his parish. Cappeau wrote, “Minuit, chrétiens” (“Midnight, Christians”) as requested. Cappeau was friends with some of the best writers in France, like Mistral, Roumanille, Daudet and de Lamartine. The composer of the music of “O Holy Night”, Adolphe Adam called Cappeau’s work “la Marseillaise religieuse” (The religious Marseillaise), referring to the spirit of Cappeau’s original poem.
Now, the music composed by Adam for “O Holy Night” was heard for the very first time in that church in Roquemaure as sung by the opera singer Emily Laurey. Adam was already famous at the time for his operas and ballets. He composed the music for “Giselle”. This could be why “O Holy Night” has been a must for Christmas plays since it’s got the recommended dose of drama and splendor that translates well onstage. It is also recommended for solo, choir, and congregational performance. But even in the bare piano (Largo tempo) instrumental, “O Holy Night” has a stillness from start to finish which mirrors the darkness of night. Christ’s birth was enveloped by still darkness. But it sounds miraculously reverent. Adam’s “O Holy Night” became one of his most popular works. Note that at this point in the story, everything’s still French.
American Harvard graduate and teacher John Sullivan Dwight founded Dwight’s Journal of Music which shaped America’s taste for European classical music. He translated the French lyrics of “O Holy Night” into English in 1855, which is what we sing today as we humbly think on the Messiah. Never mind the pop versions sung with generous trills by Mariah Carrey, Josh Groban, and Celine Dion.