Song of the Week - O Holy Night (Cantique de Noel)

Our Song of the Week this week is one of the most enduring and beloved Christmas songs ever written - which is funny, because it was not written to be a song.

In 1847, French winemaker at poet Placide Cappeau, at the request of a local parish priest, wrote a Christmas poem called Minuits, cretiens, which literally means "Midnight, Christians." This comes from the first line of the poem, Minuits, cretiens, c'est l'heure solennelle. (Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour.)

In that same year, Minuits, cretiens was set to music by well known French composer Adolphe Adam. In 1855, the song was translated into English by an American Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight's translation was hardly a word for word transcription of the poem, which literally translates as:

Midnight, Christians is the solemn hour
When God as Man descended unto us
To erase the original stain (sin)
And end the wrath of his Father.
The entire world trembles with expectation
In this night that gives to us a Savior.

Dwight added his own sense of poetry and music to the song, and gave us the well-known lyrics we have today.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The song is full of history. In December of 1906, Canadian-born inventor Reginald Fessenden began a series of what would become the world's first radio broadcasts for entertainment purposes. On Christmas Eve, 1906, he broadcast himself reading Luke 2, and playing "O Holy Night" on a violin, making the song the first ever to be broadcast via radio waves. ( exactly how many people had a radio receiver in Brandt Rock, Mass. in 1906 is still a question.)

"O Holy Night" has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to N'Sync to Eric Cartman to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It is a staple at Christmas pagents and cantatas, and can be heard in various styles on radio throughout the month of December, both instrumental and vocal.

The song was - as far as I can tell - originally written in E major, but is commonly played in C major. It is also one of the first songs I learned to play through on piano - I played a solo piano version at our talent show in 2007.


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