Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday music: "O Holy Night" — the rest of the story

We are all familiar (I trust) with the English-language version of "O Holy Night." Maybe you, like me, have shifted a bit uncomfortably as you sang some of the words, such as: "Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth." Huh? Or again, this:
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
Okay, that isn't exactly damnable heresy... but is it Gospel? Or social Gospel?

Turns out there is good reason for unease. The carol we sing is not true to the original wording of the French song Mi­nuit, chré­tiens, c’est l’heure so­len­nelle, written as a poem in 1847 by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure (1808-1877). Cappeau said he wrote it during a coach ride. Adolphe Adam, who wrote the music to Cappeau's poem, was Jewish, which led to the song being rejected by French clergy. However,  Mi­nuit, chré­tiens was embraced by laity, and continued to be sung.

In America the Mi­nuit, chré­tiens fell into the hands of John Sullivan Dwight, who was an abolitionist and a Unitarian (among other things). That is to say, Dwight advocated the abolition of slavery, and he rejected the Biblical truths of the Trinity, of the deity of Christ, of the Gospel — that is, the lost hopelessness of man in sin, and of Christ's penal, substitutionary atoning death as the sole path to reconciliation with God through faith alone. In other words, Dwight would not have affirmed Christmas, the historical Christmas, as narrated and interpreted in the Bible alone.

Ironic, eh?

So Dwight took the Mi­nuit, chré­tiens and imposed his own interests on the lyrics, "massaging" its contents (as you will see) almost to the point of rendering it well-nigh unrecongizable.

Good luck finding those lyrics, if you're not a French-speaker.

Or if you don't have a dear and only daughter with a Master's in French... or if you don't read the blog of someone who does! Were that the case, you would learn that these are the real lyrics, lyrics (at any rate) with Luke's Gospel at the center — and you'd be pretty unhappy at being stuck with a Christ-rejecting heretic's mangling of them:

Minuit, chrétiens, c'est l'heure solennelle,
Où l'Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle

          Midnight, Christians, it's the solemn hour,
          When God-man descended to us
          To erase the stain of original sin

Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d'espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.

          And to end the wrath of His Father.
          The entire world thrills with hope
          On this night that gives it a Savior.

Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur !

          People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
          Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
          Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

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,

          The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
          The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
          He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

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.

          Love unites those that iron had chained.
          Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
          It's for all of us that He is born,
          That He suffers and dies.

Peuple debout ! Chante ta délivrance,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur !

          People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
          Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
          Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

(See also here)

Here is a beautiful version, sung by French operatic tenor Roberto Alagna.

You can also hear versions by Nana Mouskouri, Placido Domingo, French tenor Georges Thill, Enrico Caruso from 1916.

And now you know... well, you know.


J♥Yce said...

Grateful to know! How many others need exposed ~

(last link is broken, Sir)

DJP said...

Thanks, but I just re-tested all the links, and they're all good from my pc. Perhaps a firewall, or your browser?

Barbara said...

We sang "O Holy Night" while caroling last week, and the phrase "Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth" caught my attention, but I didn't consider it to be a self-esteem kind of thing, but rather it hit me as it did when He appeared in my own life, and my own soul felt its actual worth - defiled, and attached to a blackened heart, but worth more than my fleshly life. And that's where the cross I'd always heard about and believed about suddenly became very, very real and very, very precious - just like the soul that is now cleansed by His blood.

One of those blessed moments when I was overwhelmed by a phrase in a moment of song.

lee n. field said...

We need to pay more critical attention to what we sing. I remember, decades back, the pastor of our (then and there) church was on a denominational hymnal revision committee. He related how the very popular Silent Night was rejected, because the lyrics weren't anything to write home about.

SandMan said...

The original lyrics are beautiful... and the French Tenor in the video sang it spectacularly.

(I got the same thing Joyce did... states the link is outdated).

Merry Christmas!

DJP said...

What link? Please be specific, there are a dozen or so. I tested every one this morning, and every one worked.

Pilgrim Mommy said...

Thanks, and please thank your daughter for the translation. I never liked "O Holy Night" because of those lines. Quite a difference when compared to the original.

J♥Yce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SandMan said...

I am sorry for being vague, Dan. Your last line reads:

"And now you know... well, you know."

There appears to be hyperlink on the last "you know."

It's likely not that important... I was just telling you that Joyce isn't the only one having a problem.

It says the resource is unavailable and:

" Please inform the author of the referring page that the link is outdated."

DJP said...

Oh well. < shrug > Sorry. Worked this morning. It was just Paul Harvey saying his signature line.

J♥Yce said...

If you're seeing it fine, Dan, I'll run a few scans. Maybe SandMan sees the same?

Word verification: bless.


J♥Yce said...

ahhhhh, thanks!

Trinian said...

Well, that is interesting. I had always taken that line as Barbara did, but boy the original is good meaty stuff. So sad that it's all but disappeared.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

YES! That line about "the soul felt its worth" always sounded wrong to me. I think I've been singing "the soul felt HIS worth".

Thanks to your DAOD for the translation... so much better.

Unfortunately we do let a lot slide by in song lyrics. I think they become so familiar we don't really listen.

I love Christmas carols, though :0)

My oldest son, when he was about five, was humming "Hark the Herald Angels Sing". We got talking about the words. When we got to "God and sinners, reconciled" he asked what "reconciled" meant. I explained and asked him why sinners need to be reconciled to God? And how?

That day he prayed, trusting Jesus to reconcile him to God.


SolaMommy said...

Thank you for this!!! :-)

trogdor said...

Daring to take on song lyrics? Thou art a brave, brave man. At one of my former ministries, I was in numerous battles over doctrine, methodology, finances, expectations, etc. But nothing ever came close to matching the ferocity of the time the praise team rolled out a new song that has great music but about 60% of the lyrics are utterly nonsensical. I innocently axed what it was supposed to mean, and when nobody could explain it, I axed whether it counts as worship if we don't understand it. You would've thought I'd suggested we skip Easter and Christmas. That was ten years ago, and it's still a touchy subject around there, all because I thought our worship should be intelligible and true. I never would've thought that would be a controversial idea, but I never considered the power of a good beat and a catchy mantra.

If there's someone out there who really, really likes this song, you might want to put on your asbestos underwear.

Rachael Starke said...

Wow. What a revelation this is!!

"He sees a brother where there was only a slave."

You could make all kinds of points about authorial intent and the pernicious intent of tranlators with that line!

I've always thought that most people love this song more for the music and the ability to make all kinds of wagers about whether the glory note at the end is going to soar, or crash and burn. How many of us have sat in a Christmas Eve service when a lady with a big hat (perhaps the pastor's wife) gets up on stage and starts warbling away?

Will she?

Won't she?

But truly, this was great, and I'm forwarding it to our worship pastor. We've got our song list for this year set, but it would be great for someone to do this in French, and then have the English translation put up on the screen, one verse at a time.

And also, this will encourage my husband, who loves to insist that Calvin is the only French Christian. :)

Trinian said...

Hmm, should I bring up again the question of whether a worship pastor who desires his congregation to sing this 90% good song has a greater mandate to change those lyrics he finds to be somewhat doctrinally confusing or to leave the hymn "pure"?

SolaMommy said...

trodgor: I innocently axed what it was supposed to mean, and when nobody could explain it, I axed whether it counts as worship if we don't understand it. You would've thought I'd suggested we skip Easter and Christmas.

Praise God there are men out there willing to put their neck on the line like that! We lost half the people in our church when our pastor nixed the "praise team" partly for this reason. People are vicious when it comes to contemporary "worship" music.

CR said...

Well, that's interesting.

Susan said...

1. The French tenors are magnifique, particularly because they are singing in their mother tongue, so the diction is as clear as it can get. Between the two of them, however, I prefer Monsieur Alagna's rendition--Monsieur Thille sounds a bit as if he were singing a military march. (Incidentally, the hymn Thine Is the Glory, which sounds like a triumphal march, was also originally written in French. See .)

2. The English translation to the French lyrics are very well done. Kudos to your DAOD, Dan! I am curious about one minor point, though: Shouldn't the phrase "Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur" be translated as "Christmas, Christmas, sing we of the Redeemer"?

Ken Abbott said...

Susan: Since chantons is the imperative form it's proper to drop the "we."

Susan said...

Ken--I'm still a little confused. The nous is implied in chantons, which makes "let's sing" somewhat different from "sing". (Another example I can think of is allons-y--we know that as "let's go", not "go".) Also, the verse that precedes my verse in question is addressed to the people as one, so the verb form used there is chante. After that the poet includes himself and uses chantons, so would it be less confusing to add the "we" (or even "let us") back into the translation? (Sorry if this bores everyone else to death, but I am curious and would like to know for my own benefit....)

Paula said...

trogdor said, the praise team rolled out a new song that has great music but about 60% of the lyrics are utterly nonsensical.

Surely, it was the "bread song," no? Ohhhh...ohhh....ohhhhh...let it riiiiii....iiiiisse...

Rachael said, I've always thought that most people love this song more for the music and the ability to make all kinds of wagers about whether the glory note at the end is going to soar, or crash and burn.

LOL!! Rachael, you crack me up!! You know, you just kind of brace yourself for it, don't you? I start gritting my teeth and tightening my diaphragm in anticipation. I know I'm probably making a terrible face, as if I just ate something sour. I'm so glad our church doesn't have a jumbotron/fan-cam!!

Herding Grasshoppers said...


If we sat together in church we'd get in trouble for giggling.

My brother and I would shake the pew trying to stifle our giggles when some "warbler" put too much "warble" on. Some of those churchy, overdone vibratos sound like a car trying to start on a cold morning. ;-)


SniperedPastor said...

That was an all-around fantastic post. I loved the theology of the original, but I really loved listening to two different tenors sing that song. Wow! Wow!
My life has been pretty much geared towards the Pacific Rim, so hearing that song in French [by absolutely great vocalists] just knocked my socks off. Actually I teared up to hear someone sing so forcefully "People stand up! Sing of your deliverance!"

Amen and Amen. It is a Merry Christmas.

In fact, I will play that for my wife and 5 children and explain the post on Christmas morning.

Did I say "Wow!"?

DJP said...

And now cometh the word from my DAOD, the Frenchinatrix. Thus spake Rachael:

Kevin has it right. The French says " Chantons le Rédempteur" which is why the English is rendered "sing of the Redeemer." It's the English that is confusing because you can't tell if it is "we" or "I" --the verb form "sing" doesn't change. In French, not only can you see/hear the difference in verb conjugation but "chantons" is a command, making "nous/we" unnecessary. It might make it less confusing in the English version to say "sing we" but it changes the nuance "un peu."

DJP said...

PS - she likes Nana's version the bestest.

Susan said...

1. Merci, O Mighty Frenchinatrix. From this little French lesson I can only imagine how incredibly precise the good translators of the Bible have to be in order to get all the nuances across!

2. And Ken, I'll say it for you (to myself):

"I told you so...." :)

Steven R. Robertson said...

What about this for a better English version of the song (same tune)?

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour
When Christ became flesh and dwelt among us
To take away Adam’s sin and ours

And to appease God’s holy justice.
The earth thrills in this hopeful contemplation
That with a Savior this night we are blessed.

People, bow down! Wait for your salvation!
Noel! Noel! Behold the Lamb who redeems us!
Noel! Noel! Behold the Lamb who redeems us!

Heaven is opened, and the earth is free,
For he has broken ev’ry barrier down.
Now a brother and not a slave he sees.

Love unites those that sin did divide.
Who can tell him of our gratitude?
For all of us he was born, suffered, and died!

People, arise! Sing of your great salvation!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Mighty Lamb!
Noel! Noel! Sing of the Mighty Lamb!

Susan said...

Steven, I think Dan's DAOD's translation is much truer to the original French text, while the one you have here is not as close. Of course you did say "version" and not "translation". :)

In terms of "better", I still prefer Rachael's version, precisely because it's truer to the text. For example, "People, bow down" in the version you posted isn't quite the same as Rachael's "People kneel down" (the French "Peuple à genoux" literally means "People, to [your] knees"). I guess it's a bit tricky since there are Christian songs that say, for example, "We bow down and we worship you, Lord", and we understand bowing to be a sign of worship and honoring the Lord. Translation really is an art.

DJP said...

I think Rachael got her somewhere, but I don't know (A) how much or (B) where.

Steven R. Robertson said...


I didn't make myself clear (no fault of yours). My intent was to take Dan's DAOD's translation and fit it to the tune (rhyme and meter, etc.). Mine wasn't an attempt at translating French at all (what little I learned in high school I learned only for the tests).

I suppose here's an object lesson in formal vs. dynamic equivalence, if nothing else...

Susan said...

Steven--agreed on the formal and dynamic equivalence. I actually had in mind something likened to ESV vs. The Message or something similar but then realized that such comparison wouldn't do your version justice! (And yes, your version is more "singable".) :)

DJP said...

Touched base with my DAOD. Rachael did get that translation somewhere, as I thought (and should have made clear), but presented it because it is basically what she would have done herself, maybe with a couple of changes.

She adds this:

That's the translators' dilemma: how to accurately convey both the meaning and the feeling of the original into an understandable and meaningful translation. It gets even more tricky when it involves songs, especially, because you also have to maintain rhyme as well as rhythm!

Further, the translation she found for the post...

...was more of a literal translation of the hymn to show most clearly how much Dwight deviated from the original. A certain amount of artistic license is allowable to achieve clarity (taking into account cultural reference, different "set phrases"etc) rhyme.....otherwise I like to go as literal as I can without sounding like a robot. I'd like to see about working up a sing-able translation of the carol (what I'd like to propose be sung instead of Dwight's!) but for the purpose of Dad's post I was just trying to be the most direct.

J. Brian McKillop said...

I have sung this song for many years, with a track that is only the first verse. This year my son-in-law asked me to sing with his choir and the track had 2 verses. I went to wikipedia and found the original French with a literal English translation.

Here is the recognized lyric:

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

Here is the lyric with my changes:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is peace.
Those once enslaved now become brothers
When by His mercy and grace we're set free.

I also changed the chorus to:

Rise to your feet, Sing of your Deliv'rer
His power and glory...

I trust my words were closer to the intent of the original.

Rachael Starke said...

BTW, there's a gentleman at Evangel today who's been blogging through this hymn and just got to the slave/brother section. I was really interested to see what he'd do with it, and thought he missed an opportunity to highlight the "delta" between the original and the modern version like you did so well...

chrish said...

Me, I never had a problem with this song. It's one of my favourites, actually. I even like the line about the soul feeling its worth.

It did. The human soul felt its worth because God declared us to be worthy of His son, by His grace alone.

To me, the biggest darkness found in atheism is that the soul (should it exist) has no worth whatsoever. It is in Christianity that its worth is realised.

HSAT, I'm not picking a fight; just explaining how it is I sing this song with gusto and a very joyful spirit every year (and even in summer, at times).

Becky, slave of Christ said...

Mistranslating is a sneaky way to twist the truth and whenever a case of it is exposed, I always feel betrayed. When MacArthur gave the message on the mistranslation of "slave" as "servant" or "bond-servant" in Scripture, it astounded me. Especially when he mentioned that even the Bible translators during the Reformation, who were seeking to put the Truth in the hands of the common man, did it. The guy who twisted O Holy Night used it to promote his own ideas, but the Reformers mistranslating slave just doesn't make sense to me.

Thanks for setting this particular record straight, Dan. Merry Christmas!