Rembrandt and workshop. 'Joseph's Dream.' 1645/6. Oil on wood.

It goes like this: A one-handed atheist, a bankrupt composer, and a Unitarian minister walk into a church.

That’s really how it starts!

In 1843, Placide Cappeau—a French atheist who sold liquor by day and poetry by night—was on a stagecoach headed to Paris.

So Placide was on this stagecoach, mulling over a priest’s request. The Catholic Church in his hometown of Roquemaure had restored its pipe organ just in time for Christmas, and priest requested Placide pen a poem to celebrate the holiday. Placide was happy to oblige. he wrote the short poem “Minuit, chrétiens” which translated as Midnight, Christians!, another name for the Christian Nativity.

Placide Cappeau (1808-1877)

Oh, I forgot to mention, Cappeau was also an award-winning artist and licensed lawyer. And he was missing his right hand. Anyway…

The poem was a hit! Over the next three years, this inspirational poem (based on the Gospel of Luke) spread far and wide across France. In 1847, the famous French composer Adolphe Adam fell in love with Placide’s work and longed to put the poem to music. At the time, the collapsing French government and the construction of his heavily-mortgaged Parisian opera house held most of Adam’s attention.

The poem, however, offered him a brief respite from debt collectors and revolutionaries. Adam’s Christmas hymn wasn’t a hit initially. Once the public discovered he was Jewish, the Catholic Church in France condemned the song, calling it “unfit for church services.” At the same time, France’s 1848 Revolution bankrupted his opera house. Adams would spend the remaining years of his life scrambling to pay back the opera house’s loans and never enjoy congratulations for the song, monetary or otherwise.

Adolphe Adam (1803-1856)

While the hymn flooded European churches during Christmas, it hadn’t caught on in America until 1855, when Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight (AND composer AND music historian) decided to translate the French into English.

While he conveyed the mood of the original poem well enough, Dwight took some liberties with the lyrics in his “translation” which was closer to a revision. Still, it instantly become a celebrated carol…but the third verse vexed pro-slavery factions in the Southern states.

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“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!”

~”O Holy Night” Translated by John Sullivan Dwight

John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893)

Let’s put this in context.

In 1855, the divisive argument over American slavery had ignited a wave of insurrection in the South. Politicians and citizens in favor of slavery saw the line “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease” as a war cry of radical abolitionists. In those turbulent years before the Civil War, keeping the Union intact concerned politicians more than slavery. Many church leaders decided the verse presented too much controversy.

The result? That final verse fell into history’s paper shredder. For awhile. Even today, the third verse is rarely performed by casual singers, and few know it actually exists. However, you can find choral groups that will perform all three verses of “O Holy Night” and the third verse sounds almost foreign to our years. We’re not used to it.

“O Holy Night” is a challenge to most singers without modification, but it’s this three-octave range that continues drawing musicians like Rufus Wainwright 160 years later. “It’s the most operatic of all Christmas songs, for sure,” Wainwright said,”With that high note near the very end, you go up an octave, there’s a lot to aim for. It’s kind of like a slow rising Alp that you eventually hope to scale.”

A quick search on YouTube will unearth hundreds of versions of this Christmas hymn, but I’d like to end this article with a short list of my personal favorites. Be sure to check out the King’s College Choir performance: their flawless blending and octave leap in the chorus will give you shivers!

From Ocean Grove Christian Songs Hymnal, 1902

1.) Kings College Choir, 2017

2.) Nat King Cole, 1960

3.) Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, 1999

4.) Mariah Carey, ABC Christmas Special, 2010

5.) Bing Crosby, 2006 Remastered