What Are We Singing: O Holy Night
- Wednesday, December 03, 2008
I am often asked about my relationship with my Jewish coauthor, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, and about how two people, who have opposing views on whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, could have successfully co-written a book primarily for Christian audiences.
Odd as it seems, we not only did it; I do believe we did it well.
And, for that reason, when I tell you—those of you who do not already know—the story behind the beloved Christmas song O Holy Night, you will not only come to have a greater understanding of how and why God brings people—even those with opposite opinions—together, and of how He blends the talents He has bestowed on them, you will also never, ever sing or hear the song in quite the same way.
Going Right to the Expert
To know more about the songs we sing—whether the great old hymns, patriotic numbers, or beloved Christmas carols—I went straight to someone I consider an expert.
Ace Collins is the award-winning author of Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. His research of the song O Holy Night enlightened me to what a Catholic commissionaire of wines from 19th century France, a Jewish composer of both operas and ballets, a Harvard Divinity graduate who suffered from panic disorder and agoraphobia, and Thomas Edison’s former chief chemist have in common. More than just this, I now know how God used all four to bring to the world one of its most cherished pieces of music.
“Placide Cappeau was known more for his poetry than his church attendance, so it probably shocked the commissionaire of wines when his parish priest asked him to pen a poem for Christmas mass in 1847 France,” Collins tells me. “Cappeau figured that since the poem was to be read at mass, it should be religious and, of course, focus on Christmas.”
According to Cappeau, he penned the poem, known in French as Cantique de Noel while riding a stagecoach en route to Paris and reflecting on Luke’s version of the nativity story.
“Once the poem was complete and moved by his own words,” Ace Collins continues, “Cappeau decided that his poem was more than just that, and that it should be set to music. But he wasn’t musically inclined, so he called upon his friend, Adolphe Charles Adam, a well-known composer, for help.”
The words to Cantique de Noel moved Adam in a most mysterious way; they were penned about an event with which he was basically unfamiliar and about an event he did not personally celebrate. “You see,” Collins says, “Adam was Jewish.”
And a Nation was Moved. Twice.
Cantique de Noel was performed at the Christmas Eve midnight mass three weeks after Adam finished his work on the score. It quickly made its way across France and was performed at other Christmas services and to great reviews.
“That is,” says Collins, “until Cappeau became a socialist and the church found out that a Jewish man had written the music. The church suddenly and uniformly denounced the song, deeming it ‘unfit’ because it lacked musical taste.”
Enter the third party in this amazing story. John Sullivan Dwight, a Harvard divinity graduate and Unitarian minister had problems of his own over in Northampton, Massachusetts. Whenever he tried to preach, he grew sick. Panic attacks and agoraphobia soon overtook the young pastor, forcing him to use his talents in a whole new way, by founding, writing, and publishing Dwight’s Journal of Music.
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