Behind the Song: O Holy Night
In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was most likely shocked when the parish priest asked him to write a poem for Christmas Mass.
De Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French town and well known for his poetry. He was an unlikely person for the priest to ask to write this poem, in the fact that he was not a faithful attender of church services.
He considered the priest request. While traveling by a dusty stagecoach down the bump roads of France, toward the capital city, he turned to the account of Jesus birth in the gospel of Luke. He imagined what it would be like to be present in Bethlehem on that blessed night and was inspired.
By the time he arrived in Paris, Cantique de Noel was completed.
He was moved enough by his work to decide his work was more than just a poem. He sought out a friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, son of a well-known classical musician for help and an alumni of the Paris conservatoire.
Adolphe was of Jewish ancestry and did not celebrate the Christmas holiday. His talent and fame brought requests to write for orchestras, ballets and ensembles around the world.
Although challenged by his religious beliefs he began work on a melody that married the tune and words to one another. The work was completed within three weeks and the lyrics now had a tune in which to sing them.
The song was first performed at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The song was initially well received and loved by the Catholic Church of France. The song spread in popularity and was often performed in Christmas services throughout the French countryside.
When de Roquemaure left the church in part of the socialists movements and church authorities discovered Adams Jewish heritage church denounced the song. The church deemed the song to have a “total absence of the spirit of religion.”
However, regardless of the churches attempt to ban the song the French people continued to sing it, especially in the privacy of their homes and at social gatherings.
The song wasn’t sequestered in France for long.
“Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the beginning of “Cantique de Noel.”
The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once again embracing “Cantique de Noel” in holiday services.”
The song spread to Unitarian minister, American writer, abolitionists and editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music, John Sullivan Dwight, who identified with the song, especially the third verse. He created a singing edition based on the text and published in his magazine.
On December 24, 1906 Reginald Fessenden, a 33-year old university professor, who had been a chief chemist for Thomas Edison did something thought only to be impossible until that moment. The only radio of the day were the wireless transmitters that spoke code. Fessenden spoke into a microphone, using a new generator he’d developed, and his voice was broadcast over the airwaves. He read the passage from Luke 2, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”
Upon finishing his reading of the birth of Christ, Fesseden played O Holy Night on his violin. The song became the “first song ever sent through the air via radio waves.” When the song ended, so did the broadcast.
This must have been a miracle to the radio operators on ships and at newspapers that caught the broadcast. We can only imagine how those nearby rushed to join the radio operators in this impromptu radio broadcast that took everyone by surprise.
The first song ever transmitted over the airwaves spread the gospel of Christ birth.
The song has gone on to become an often recorded Christmas song.
In 1916, Enrico Caruso, who many consider the greatest operatic tenor who ever lived, recorded the song with the original French lyrics and released it on a 78-RPM acoustical disc.
The song has gone on to be sung, recorded and played numerous times since that first performance back in 1847. The song has gone on to become one of the most loved Christmas and spiritual songs to be sung.
This song, which should never have been written and brought to acclaim, by those that are associated with the song has continued to grow and inspired many throughout the centuries with it’s beautiful, storytelling form.
The song continues to move people to everything from tears to cheers in the renderings performed by churches around the world.
A version of this true story and so many more can be found in the wonderful book Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins.