Editor’s Note — It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “sound track.” The Times-Gazette today presents the 11th installment of a special 12-part series entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the stories behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
According to Robert Morgan’s 2003 book of hymn history and stories “Then Sings My Soul,” little is known about the man who penned the words to the French carol “Christian Midnight,” which was later translated into the English hymn “O Holy Night.”
The words to it were written by Placide Clappeau, a wine merchant and mayor of the southern France town of Roquemaure, and all that the history books reveal about him was that he wrote poems as a hobby.
In his 2001 book “Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas,” author Ace Collins wrote that in Roquemaure at the end of 1843, the church organ had been renovated, and to celebrate the parish priest asked Cappeau to write a Christmas poem.
Later that same year, Adolphe Adam composed the music to accompany Cappeau’s poem, with the song debuting in 1847 and performed by opera singer Emily Laurey.
Adam could be described as a prodigy, and was the son of a concert pianist who Morgan said had been trained almost from infancy in music and piano. He wrote his first opera in his mid 20s and would write two operas a year until his premature death at the age of 52 in 1856.
It was John Dwight, the son of Yale University president Timothy Dwight, who discovered the French carol and in 1855 translated it into the English hymn “O Holy Night.”
Dwight was a minister in the Unitarian church whose liberal views Morgan said were greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the culture of Germany at the time, and the symphonic music of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Collins wrote that Dwight’s English translation, especially the third verse, became popular in the United States, especially with abolitionists in the North, who strongly identified with the words he wrote. Those words were:
“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.
“Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
“Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.
“Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim.”
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