An unknown (to me!) carol

The radio was on and the programme being broadcast was ‘Soul Music’; it’s  described as a ‘series about pieces of music with a powerful emotional impact’. For example, programmes have included:

  • Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
  • Waterloo Sunset – the Kinks
  • Sukiyaki – both Japanese and English versions
  • The St Matthew Passion
  • Don’t Leave Me This Way – the Communards
  • Crazy – Patsy Cline

So today’s programme was about a Christmas carol; now although I am not Christian, I was brought up at a time where Christianity was part of every day life so I went to Sunday school, had a religious assembly every day at school, had R.E. (religious education) lessons every week at school, and many of my closest friends are practising Christians… so over the years I have listened to and sung many, many Christmas carols.

The carol being discussed today by Archbishop John Sentanu, Katie Melua, Tymara Walker and others was ‘O Holy Night’… did they mean the carol I know as ‘Silent Night’ with its second line of ‘holy night’? Of course they didn’t this nineteenth century carol is completely different – and I had never heard it or heard of it. How did it pass me by? I’m sure it wasn’t in the hymn book which I still have somewhere that we used throughout our time there, and I can’t remember it from Sunday school.

According to Wikipedia, it dates from the 1840’s and was originally a French carol. Before it was a hymn, it was a poem by Placide Cappeau who was a wine merchant. He sounds quite a remarkable person – born in 1808, he lost his hand in a terrible shooting accident at the age of only eight when he was playing with a gun with a friend. Despite this and with the financial assistance of the father of the boy who had shot him, Placide continued his studies and won prizes for drawing, received certificates for literature, and became a lawyer…. however, it seems he was probably destined from birth to follow his father into his wine business, and indeed he did.

Placide wrote a popular poem, ‘Minuit Chretiens!’ and this was set to music by Adolphe Adam who was five years older than Placide. Adolphe was a composer (he wrote the music for the ballet ‘Giselle’), teacher and music critic, and he wrote the melody to what became the lyric of the carol. The carol is famous and well-loved in France, and was translated into English in the 1850’s by John Sullivan Dwight.

So it’s a carol which has been around for a long time, and yet I just don’t know it! We didn’t sing it at school, I don’t remember it at any carol concert… somehow it has eluded me!

PS… I’m really sorry but I don’t actually like this carol!

… and here is a link to the BBC programme:


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