The Story Behind ‘O Holy Night’

The Story Behind ‘O Holy Night’

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By Liam Nolan

The gun should never have been left lying around in the first place. Making the carelessness even worse was that it was loaded. With two unsupervised eight-year-old boys messing with it, something catastrophic was bound to happen. It did.
Young Brignon squeezed the trigger. There was a loud, sharp, crack, a whiff of gun smoke, a gush of blood, and an eruption of high, hard screechy-screaming.


Placide Cappeau, a son of winemakers and barrel makers, was suddenly and excruciatingly on his way to becoming permanently one-handed. The bullet destroyed his right hand, which had to be amputated. That put paid to any idea that when he grew up he would become a cooper like his dad. Jacques Brignon, father of the boy who accidentally shot Placide, was distraught. In an attempt to make amends, he offered the Cappeau family financial support for the education of their amputee son.
The handgun incident happened in 1816 in the small town of Roquemaure, about seven-and-a-half miles north of Avignon in the south of France.


Placide was accepted by the College Royal d’Avignon. There, at the age of 17, he won first prize in drawing. Subsequently he studied literature in Nimes, and in 1831 he obtained a law degree in Paris. But he never practiced law. Instead, in Roquemaure he became a wine merchant whose main hobby was writing verse.


A competent enough poet, he never achieved widespread literary success or fame, though he was well known enough locally to get himself elected mayor of the town.
Born and brought up a Catholic, he had drifted away from religion, only rarely attended Mass, and in conversations with people directed a lot of biting criticism at the Roman Catholic clergy in general.


The parish priest of Roquemare was close to giving up on him, especially when Cappeau began to publicly espouse socialism.


However, in what proved to be a last throw of the dice in attempting to draw Cappeau (right) back into the bosom of Mother Church, in 1847 the priest asked him to write a Christmas poem for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The priest also asked him to take it to one of France’s most famous and successful composers, Adolphe Adam, for a musical setting.


Cappeau felt both puzzled and flattered, and told the priest he would do his best to come up with something suitable. For reference, he turned to Luke’s gospel about the birth of Christ, reasoning that it would give him an authoritative framework on which he might base his poem.


Then, on December 3rd of that year, during a long, bumpy and swaying journey by coach from Roquemare to Paris, he began the task of putting words on paper. It was on the section between the cities of Macon and Dijon that he did the bulk of the work. By the time the coach trundled into Paris, he had completed it. He gave it the title Cantique de Noel (Song of Christmas).


What he had done was to imagine what it would have been like to witness the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. When he read and re-read what he had written, he felt deeply moved by the words.


Now he had to get the poem to Adolphe Adam, whose theatrical successes included the ballets Faust, and Giselle, and La Fille du Danub. Adam (pictured below) had been commissioned to compose orchestral works and ballets that were performed in faraway St Petersburg, and in Berlin and London. He was at the height of his fame.
Into his hands now came Cappeau’s poem, and, given its subject matter and the beautiful style of is writing, it presented him with a challenge unlike any he had been presented with before.


He spent three weeks perfecting his composition, and ended up with what is frequently called a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of music.


Cappeau took the song back to Roquemare and handed it over to the parish priest, who was overcome with awe and gratitude.


He contacted a Parisian opera singer who lived locally, and at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, she gave the first public performance of the carol that would become known as O Holy Night, and would be (and is) sung tearfully and with reverence all over the world.


The congregation at that Midnight Mass loved the carol, and within a short time it won the hearts and approval of people all over France. The Catholic Church in France originally endorsed its use in Christmas ceremonies.


And then something strange happened. The church authorities denounced the carol. Placide Cappeau had denounced the Catholic Church and joined the socialist movement, and Adolphe Adam was found to have had Jewish ancestry. The reasons given by the church authorities for banning Cantique de Noel were: “its lack of musical taste”! and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”! But the common people disregarded the denunciation. They wouldn’t let the song die. Cantique de Noel continued to be sung at Christmas ceremonies all over France.


An extraordinary happening during the 1870/’71 Franco-Prussian War was allegedly the reason the Catholic Church authorities received the song back into religious ceremonies. During a lull in battle, a French soldier jumped up out of his trench, stood in full view, and sang Cantique de Noel. Not one shot was fired at him. The Germans were so moved that one of their soldiers then stood up and sang one of Martin Luther’s hymns. Nobody fired a shot at him either. It resulted in the armies of both sides honouring a 24-hour Christmas truce.


The English words of O Holy Night were written by an American named John Sullivan Dwight who introduced the song to America.


And on Christmas Eve, 1906, O Holy Night became the first song ever broadcast over the radio when Reginald Fassenden played it when experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph.


I first heard the song as a youngster on a crisp starry night in Cobh when boy soprano Jack Kelly sang it in the cathedral. I can still hear in my head his beautiful, clear, true voice, and it breaks my heart, as O Holy Night will this year again, and I’ll cry when I listen to Jussi Bjorling, and precious memories from all the years flood through me.

From our Christmas Annual 2017