Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Holy Night

Another lengthy read but hopefully an interesting one. 
Save it for Christmas holiday reading if time does not permit.

O Holy Night has always been my favourite carol. Hear it sung by one of the greatest tenors who ever lived, Mario Lanza at:

Close your eyes and let the music and the rich voice of Mario Lanza wash over you.  I still get chills when I hear it.

The singer:

Lanza (1921-1959), the son of Italian emigrants, rose to become the only performer to have had Number 1’s in popular music, classical opera and film. During most of his film career, he suffered from overeating and alcohol abuse, which seriously impacted on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and other cast members. According to Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper: "his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak".

Mario Lanza died in 1959 after undergoing a controversial weight loss program colloquially known as "the twilight sleep treatment," which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot which developed in his leg having travelled to his lungs.  He was 38.

The Carol:

O Holy Night

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit 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!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

In 1847 Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, the commissionaire of wines in a small French town, was asked by the parish priest to compose a poem for Christmas mass. This was somewhat odd in that not only did Cappeau not attend church regularly, he held republican, socialist and anti-clerical (secular) views.

In spite of his views and outlook, Cappeau accepted the task.  Imagining what it would have been like to be present at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, he wrote the poem Cantique de Noel, O Holy Night.

Cappeau felt that the poem needed to be put to music.  He asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to assist, Adams having studied at the Paris conservataire and being a talented, famous composer.  He was also Jewish.  This meant that he was being asked to compose music for a poem that honoured a man he did not view as the son of God on a day that he did not celebrate.  Nonetheless he finished the task requested by his friend.  The completed work was performed on Christmas Eve three weeks later.

Cantique de Noel was warmly received by both the population and the church, which incorporated it into Catholic Christmas services.  The carol became popular and well known.  When Cappeau walked away from the church and joined the socialist movement, the church authorities became aware of both Cappeau’s beliefs and that Adams was a Jew.  The heads of the French Catholic church deemed Cantique de Noel as unsuitable for religious observance, that it lacked musical taste and religious spirit.  Despite this, it remained popular with the population.

In 1855 American writer John Sullivan Dwight, an ordained minister and writer about music, translated the carol from French and introduced it to America.  Dwight, who was fervently opposed to slavery, particularly identified with the words of the third verse: 

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Dwight published the translated lyrics in his magazine, resulting in rapid popularity.  It was especially popular in the North during the Civil War.

The song remained banned by the church in France.  It was reported that on Christmas Eve in 1871,  during the Franco-Prussian War during fierce trench warfare, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of his trench and sang the carol. No German soldiers fired at him.  Instead a German soldier climbed out of his trench and sang a carol composed by Martin Luther.  For the next 24 hours fighting stopped as the two sides engaged in a temporary truce. (In 1914 a similar truce – the Christmas Truce -  took place along the Western Front as British, French and German soldiers ceased fire and, in some cases, exchanged gifts, cigarettes, alcohol and played games).  

The above event may have helped the Church accept the carol back into the church fold.

On Christmas Eve 1906 a further amazing event took place which involved the carol Cantique de Noel.

Using a new form of generator, inventor Reginald Fessender broadcast his own voice over airwaves that had previously transmitted only Morse Code signals.  Radio operators on ships and various other locations were shocked to hear a human voice coming from the airwaves.  .  Fessender read from the gospel of Luke about the birth of Christ and then played O Holy Night on his violin. This audio radio broadcast of entertainment and music was the first in history ever made to a general audience.

Other memorable versions:

Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti:

Andrea Bocelli:

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