Thursday, December 23, 2010

Songs for Advent and Christmas 11: Cantique de Noël

This "Magnificat" of Christmas carols was composed by Adolphe Adam to the French poem "Minuit, chrétiens" ("Midnight, Christians") by Placide Cappeau (1808–1877), a wine merchant and poet, who had been asked by Fr. Eugène Nicolas, pastor of Roquemaure, a town in Gard in the south of France now known as the home of Côtes du Rhône wine and for its moniker "The Capital of Lovers" (Roquemaure hosts an annual "Festival of the Kiss"), to write a Christmas poem for some activities he was organizing to raise funds to restore the stained glass windows at Saint Jean Baptiste. Cappeau wrote the poem on December 3, 1847 in a stagecoach while travelling between Mâcon and Dijon. Adam, who called this carol the "Marseillaise religieuse", set it to music and it was performed for the first time on Christmas Eve during the midnight Mass at Roquemaure by Emily Laurey, a singer who had worked previously with Adam in light opera.

Initially, "Cantique de Noël" was very popular with the church in France, but when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adam was a Jew, the song was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church as being too pagan. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed "Cantique de Noël" unfit for church services because of its "total absence of the spirit of religion." Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it.

After moving away from institutional religion, Cappeau repented the first verse of his famous poem/hymn. He wrote an alternate version in 1876, just before his death, one that was never embraced by popular culture:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où dans l’heureux Bethléem, vint au jour
Le messager de la bonne nouvelle
Qui fit, des lois de sang, la loi d’amour.

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When in happy Bethlehem was born
The messenger of the good news,
who made the law of love from the blood laws.

It was the tenth of his Poème historique en vingt chants, dedicated to the organ at Roquemaure, and in the margins, Cappeau added this note: "Nous avons cru devoir modifier ce qui nous avait échappé au premier moment sur le péché originel, auquel nous ne croyons pas... Nous admettons Jésus comme rédempteur, mais rédempteur des inégalités, des injustices et de l’esclavage et des oppressions de toute sorte..." ("We thought we should modify what escaped from us the first time about original sin, in which we don't believe...We view Jesus as redeemer, but redeemer from inequality, injustice, slavery and oppression of every kind...")

In 1855, John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, wrote the English version we are most familiar with as "O Holy Night". Dwight's version guts the political strength of Cappeau's lyrics. Only in the last verse, which is often omitted in performance, does Dwight stay close to the power of the French original:

...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....

Because this song was originally designed to be sung by a female voice, I'm partial to this simple version by Nana Mouskouri even though she doesn't sing all the verses (most performances omit the middle verse so this is not unusual).

Cantique de Noël

Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle,
Où l'Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d'espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur !

De notre foi que la lumière ardente
Nous guide tous au berceau de l'Enfant,
Comme autrefois une étoile brillante
Y conduisit les chefs de l'Orient.
Le Roi des rois naît dans une humble crèche :
Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,
A votre orgueil, c'est de là que Dieu prêche.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.

Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave :
La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n'était qu'un esclave,
L'amour unit ceux qu'enchaînait le fer.
Qui lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C'est pour nous tous qu'il naît, qu'il souffre et meurt.
Peuple debout ! Chante ta délivrance,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur !

(literal English translation)

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

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