I was listening to Mantovani’s “Christmas Carols” (1954) with my young friend Casey Jones Costello, who is my go-to guy for all things mid-century and musical. If modern Christmas music annoys you, you should give this album a listen: it’s your grandparents’ Christmas.
The album includes—of course—the 19th century carol “O Holy Night.” This lovely melody has been recorded by everyone from Enrico Caruso to Josh Groban. It is many people’s favorite (including mine). Imperiously commanding all humanity to “fall on your knees!” is as close as I’ll ever get to being an operatic diva.
The lyrics to “O Holy Night” were written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau. His hand having been shot off at the age of eight, Cappeau was unable to follow his father into the family barrel-making business. Instead, he took degrees in literature and law and became a successful dealer in wine and spirits. He was a writer on the side, hanging with the young poets who formed the literary group called the Félibrige, dedicated to preserving the Provençal langue d’oc.
In short, Cappeau was the perfect traditionalist type to pen a poem for Christmas Eve services, as his parish priest requested. According to Cappeau, he wrote Minuit, Chrétien on a stagecoach to Paris somewhere between Mâcon and Dijon.
For music, he turned to his pal Adolphe Adam. Adam was the son of a prominent composer and musician, but his own career was not so august. Having failed to secure a Prix de Rome at conservatory, he went on to write vaudeville music. At the time he wrote the music to “O, Holy Night,” he was deep into a failed scheme to open a fourth opera house in Paris.
“O Holy Night” premiered in Roquemaure in 1847 by opera singer Emily Laurey. It was an immediate and enduring hit. Adam himself called it the Marseillaise of French Catholicism.
And therein lay the rub. Europe was fast approaching the revolutions of 1848. In France, they would end the Orleans monarchy forever. Revolution is in general no respecter of religion, and the French Revolution of 1789-1799 had been particularly brutal for the Catholic Church and its clergy.
The Church recognized the song for what it was—a pop tune, not sacred music—and its composers as primarily socialist reformers, not Catholics. “O Holy Night” was excommunicated and would stay that way for decades.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Imagine that being translated into American politics of the time, which was galvanized by the question of slavery. In 1855, New England transcendentalist minister John Sullivan Dwight (widely credited as the first music journalist), translated “O Holy Night” into English. It was a hit in New England, and remains one everywhere today.