Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
John Sullivan Dwight, 1855
On the flight from Portland to San Francisco I sat next to a woman, a single mother, who had adopted Adele. Adele, four weeks old, was sleeping in a car seat attached to the seat next to the window in the airplane. With its hood and canopy, the car seat resembled a tiny baby carriage and the opening faced towards her mom. The two were on their way to Pennsylvania to visit Adele’s grandparents. I talked to her mom for some time and when the plane began to taxi on the runway, Adele woke, looked at her mom with the most wonderful smile, the most expressive, trusting eyes, a face full of joy. I doubt any expressions of pleasure and love were any more genuine than those exchanged at that moment. There are certain indelible wonderful moments and the looks exchanged between that mother and that daughter was one of those moments.
Minuit, chrétiens (O Holy Night)
It wasn’t until high school that I heard O Holy Night or as its titled in French, Cantique de Noel. Lynne Johanson, a soprano, sang it and the performance and song moved me. It still does. I sometimes get chills when I hear a chorus sing “Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels’ voices!” I sometimes sob uncontrollably when I hear “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.”
Placide Cappeau was a 19th century French wine merchant, poet and atheist who was asked by the parish priest, Eugene Nicolas of l’eglise St-Jean-Baptiste in Roquemaure, to write a Christmas poem. Such are the ways of a small town that an anticleric and atheist can write a moving Christmas poem. Cappeau, a free-thinker who believed Jesus was the redeemer of injustices, inequalities and oppressions, but not the Redeemer of original sin, became unhappy about the success of the song, since he wanted to change the lyrics but didn’t before the song’s debut. He titled his poem Minuit, chrétiens.
The melody was written by Adolphe Adam, perhaps best remembered for his ballet Giselle. Adam composed 39 operas, many operettas and several ballets, taught composition, and was an organist who lived in Paris. Adam was asked by Emily Laurey, an opera singer who lived in Roquemaure, to set the poem to music. While Cappeau may have been unhappy with the results, Adam’s feelings are unknown. He seemed to have forgotten the song, which he wrote in a few days.
Adding further irony to the song’s history is that the English lyrics known as “O Holy Night” were written by the Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight in 1855. Dwight edited Dwight’s Journal of Music and was one of America’s first classical music critics.
Laurey debuted the song at midnight mass in Roquemaure on 24 December 1847.
I’ve read differing accounts as to why the abbot desired the composition: one states that it was to furnish the church with new stained glass windows and the other was to dedicate the renovated organ. The performance below from Italy uses organ accompaniment and contains the ending as composed by Adam.