Lessons and Carols: The Subversive Song
The Road to a Carol
A rickety coach traveled down the bumpy road from Roquemaure to Paris. Nestled inside, the wine selling poet Placide Cappeau had his nose buried deep in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth. Much to his own surprise, the writer was engrossed by the evangelist’s story. Though he infrequently attended church and did not consider himself rather religious, Cappeau’s attention was wrapped by the tale.
The God of Mysterious Ways
Given the faith credentials of the French poet, one has to wonder how Luke’s narrative so deeply engrossed Cappeau’s imagination. “God moves in a mysterious way,” writes English hymnodist William Cowper, “His wonders to perform.” The Christmas season is a reminder that the Lord often speaks and acts through unexpected means. A completed renovation and the poetic skill of a wine seller illustrate this principle well.
In 1843, repair work was finished on the organ in Roquemaure’s village church. To celebrate the completion, the parish priest approached Cappeau with an unusual request: he wanted the poet to pen a poem be read at the Christmas mass. To his own surprise, Cappeau agreed.
“Cantique de Noël”
As his carriage bumped along the dusty road, Cappeau poured himself into his yuletide task. While devouring Luke’s nativity story for inspiration, the writer tried to imagine himself at the manger. He pictured himself in the Bethlehem stable where Mary laid her newborn babe in an animal’s feeding trough and angels sang the Christ child’s praises.
Spurred by his imaginings, Cappeau penned the words to the song “Cantique de Noël”, or “O Holy Night” in English. His hand wrote so furiously that the poem was completed by the end of the journey.
From Poem to Song
Awed by his opus, Cappeau decided to set his words to music; mere prosaic recitation could not do justice to the carol. To this end, he enlisted the help of Adolphe Charles Adams.
Few could boast Adam’s musical pedigree. The son of a famous classical musician, Adolphe was exposed to music at a young age. He went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire, a world-renowned school of music. As word of his talent spread, patrons from Moscow to London sought his songs. Excited by Cappeau’s proposal, Adams eagerly composed music for the poet’s carol in less than three weeks. The song was ready for a festive debut.
Beside the Manger
“Cantique de Noël” was first sung at the Roquemaure parish church Christmas mass in 1847. Performed by the famed soprano, Émily Laurey, this carol enraptured the audience in yuletide awe. For the brief moments the music played, listeners were transported from their provincial town to the manger of Christ. In that melodious dreamscape, the parishioners were struck with the same inspiration that compelled Cappeau to pen the poem.
After the initial acclaim, “O Holy Night” entrenched itself as a normal part of the French Christmas. Countless recitations of the song spilled out into the streets of Roquemaure. Unfortunately, it was still met with some backlash.
Shortly after the carol’s debut success, Cappeau joined a socialist movement. As the Revolution of 1848 blazed through France, high ranking clergy accused the Roquemaure wine seller of fomenting subversive fervor.
Additionally, these critics decried Adams because of spurious claims that he was of Jewish descent (antisemitism was unfortunately a fixed feature of the European intellectual landscape for many centuries). In the eyes of the churchmen of those days, socialists and Jews had no place writing songs for Christian worship.
Despite the outcry, the popularity of “O Holy Night” continued to grow. Though it was conspicuously absent from church services for many years, it continued to echo from French homes throughout the centuries.
Surprised by God
The story of Cappeau’s and Adams’ sleeper hit is a stark reminder that God can neither be caged or comprehended. No 19th-century French Catholic would have expected a socialist and a purported Jew to pen a song of Christian adoration.
From those surprising hands, however, came a carol that has transported generations of listeners to the manger of our Lord. Indeed, no one would have expected the King of kings to be born in a dirty feeding trough. As the church had no room for Cappeau’s song, so neither palace nor inn had room for the Savior. Instead, both carol and Christ were housed in the homes and hearts of those humble enough to receive them.
Though Cappeau’s canticle was majestic enough to reverberate throughout Cathedrals, it instead filled the homes of everyday men and women. “God moves in a mysterious way,” to quote Cowper, for Jesus is perfectly suited to a heavenly throne, yet he stoops to seat himself in the hearts of those who will have him.