Sunday, December 22, 2002

Teasing away at "the meaning of Christmas", Wayne Brown writes about his favourite Christmas carols in his column in today's Observer. Not "Adeste Fidelis" — "much too far removed from its original emotions" — or "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" — "a beer hall rugby song".

"But think instead of the perfect stillness of that lovely lyric, 'Silent Night', of its moonlit serenity, its motionless gleam!... And then think, for contrast, of the Wagnerian turbulence of 'O Holy Night', how it begins in solemnity and awe, and then moves, through the transition of thrilling expectation — 'For yonder breaks a new and glorious dawn' — to the paradoxical triumph of adoration — 'Fall on your knees! O hear the angels' voices!' (and what a thunder of jubilation in that 'Fall'!), and then to the imperious affirmation, 'O night divine!' with its sobbing withdrawal — 'O night when Christ was born!' — and the wave-surge coming again: 'O night! Divine!'

"I don't know when that carol was composed; but I can feel behind it a whole civilisation in its prime, Christian Europe in its prime: supremely confident in its beliefs, without the least flicker of agnosticism, and thus free, as few thinking Christians today are free, to surrender itself to joy and thunder its praise at the God-secreting heavens, as a free man laughs out of a surfeit of life or bulls bellow away their excess in June."

(Nice little Basil Bunting reference in that last line there.)

Brown doesn't know when "O Holy Night" was composed, but Google has a fair idea — 1847, music by the French composer Adolphe Charles Adam (better known for his ballet Giselle), original lyrics by Placide Cappeau ("a wine merchant and mayor of Roquemaure" who "wrote poems for his own enjoyment"), later translated into English by the American clergyman John S. Dwight.

The story of "O Holy Night" — or "Minuit, Chrétiens", the original French title — is unexpectedly fascinating, especially in light of Brown's interpretation ("I can feel behind it a whole civilisation in its prime" etc.). The Hymns and Carols of Christmas website gives a detailed account:

"Cappeau became friends with a Parisian couple named Laurey. The Laureys had temporarily relocated to southern France so that Monsieur Laurey could follow his civil engineering career by building a bridge across the Rhône River near Roquemaure. Just before Cappeau left for Paris on a business trip, the parish priest asked the part-time poet to write a Christmas poem and to take it to the famous Parisian composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856) for a musical setting. Adam was an acquaintance of Madame Laurey, who was a singer. Reportedly, on December 3, 1847, about halfway on the long coach ride to Paris, Cappeau received the inspiration for the poem, 'Minuit, Chrétiens'.

"Cappeau was a total obscurity when he contacted Adam in Paris. The composer, in contrast, was at the peak of his fame at that time.... After Cappeau brought his lines to Adam, the facile musician took only a few days to complete the carol The premiere performance of the song was, as intended, at the midnight mass in the church of Roquemaure on Christmas 1847. It is quite conceivable that the unsuspecting audience was delightfully stunned by the soulful beauty of the partially homegrown song. Despite this remote and unheralded beginning, the song, within a generation or so, became one of the classics of the Christmas season."

But the song did not meet with universal approbation. To Brown's ears, it sounds "supremely confident in its beliefs, without the least flicker of agnosticism", but the French ecclesiastical authorities were not convinced; it turns out that

"Adam was from a non-Christian background.... Even worse, Cappeau has been described as a social radical, a freethinker, a socialist, and a non-Christian.... These attitudes were clearly indicated in an 1876 poem, 'Le Château de Roquemaure', a 4,000-line philosophical poetical flop in which Cappeau repudiated his 1847 lyrics and drastically revised their content and outlook. The controversial views, though, were confined only to his last years, which were marked by obvious eccentricity."

(Again, thanks to Hymns and Carols of Christmas.)

Which of course doesn't mean that "O Holy Night" can't "thunder its praise at the God-secreting heavens" if its listeners & its singers so desire; the point of this little story is perhaps to remind us that works of art, however minor, have an unfathomable ability to transcend the mere human circumstances of their creation, belonging to none of us & thus to all of us, whatever our histories or our beliefs.

(Or perhaps this just proves the omniscience of Google & the prudence of fact-checking!)

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