Whether you know it as “O Holy Night” or “Cantique de Noël,” you probably either love it or hate it. You may find the music and words moving and inspiring, or you may just have heard one too many singers struggle through the high notes. Either way, I have a few facts that, while they might not change your mind about the song, are sure to give you a different perspective on this timeless Christmas favorite.
1. Have you ever wondered why this lovely melody is paired with those bombastic sounding organ interludes? Perhaps it’s because the piece was commissioned to celebrate the renovation of the church organ in Roquemaure, France. The organ had been moved from a convent in Avignon and installed in the church, but had required extensive work. The parish priest asked a local poet by the name of Placide Cappeau to write a poem for the occasion. Cappeau’s poem, “Minuit, Christiens” (Midnight, Christians) was then set to music by composer Adolphe Adam, and the rest is history…
2. Cappeau was not only a poet, but a wine merchant and a professed atheist. Really.
3. Adam was a well-known organist and the composer of 53 operas, numerous ballets and countless smaller works. My favorite Adam composition? His ballet Giselle, which bubbles over with beautiful melodies and has a fabulous and fun part for the harp.
4. One of the odd features about the carol melody is that it starts on the third beat of the measure. Those extra two beats have tripped up many a musician at a midnight Christmas Eve service.
5. Here’s a random, but intereting fact: “Cantique de Noël” is also the French title for the Dickens story “A Christmas Carol.”
6. The first known recording of the carol was a 1916 recording by tenor Enrico Caruso. More recent recordings have charted on the Billboard list, topping out at number 55 in 1996. Recent artists who have had their recordings of “O Holy Night” chart on the list include, Martina McBride, Josh Groban and LeAnn Rimes.
7. And despite the enduring popularity of the carol, it gradually fell out of favor with French church leaders, one of whom described it as displaying “a lack of musical taste and a total absence of the spirit of religion.”
A personal observation: the “Cantique de Noël” was written and first performed in 1847, just two months before the February 1848 French Revolution. The peace and profound beauty of the music made a stark contrast with the political dissent of those times. I cannot but be reminded of our own troubled times and the recent events in Paris. When I perform the carol this holiday season, I will remember the difference that music can make in our world, and be grateful for the joy and beauty that it brings into my life which I can share with others.
Peace to you this holiday season!