Monday, December 05, 2011

Monday Music repost from 2009: "O Holy Night" — the rest of the story

Some Facebook friends reminded me of this post 2009 courtesy of DAOD. We've gained a lot of readers since then who may not have had the pleasure, and I enjoyed the reminder so: though I have more good Christmas music on-tap than we have Mondays, we open Christmas season with this repost.

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.


Robert said...

I never knew of this mistranslation...quite sad, indeed.

J. Brian McKillop said...

I found the French words and English translation some years ago and wrote new words for THAT verse. I believe these words reflect the original (and the Gospel) much better:

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
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name

Rise to your feet O sing of your Deliv’rer
His power and glory evermore proclaim
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see someone poetically tweek it without changing the meaning so we can sing the real version. I tried to sing it and it's a bit awkward in English. Anyone good at that out there? It'd be worth it to get a new version on youtube...someone write it and then get a good singer or choir to sing it.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Thanks, Dan. I have to google up this post every year to point it out to friends.

Anonymous said...

So, in English we have sort of the NLT version of the song?

Anonymous said...

Or the Watchtower version...

Wendy said...

Everything sounds better when it's not in English.

CleanFlea said...

If this was facebook I would like and repost it to my wall. As a matter of fact, I may post it to my wall anyway

Jeremiah Halstead said...

That was not my wife, that was me

Pierre Saikaley said...

Just a couple of thoughts:

1. The French here is pleasant, and not as rough as the French I'm used to hearing in Canada.

2. Wikipedia , I think, mistranslate's the French definite articleL' in front of the noun HOMME-DIEU (in the 2nd line)as having no article in English.

The "H" in the word Homme is a "mute" or silent "H", hence the apostrophe (L')instead of the usual Le for a masculine noun. So my reading of it into English is THEGod-Man, not simply "God-Man".

Of course, this all could just be a typo on the part of Wiki's editors. :-)

Rachael Starke said...

Sigh.... why does the French language have to be commandeered by... the French. Not to mention, the Canadians. Forgotten this post, but delighted to remember it!

No disrespect meant, J. Brian, being only an amateur "lover of the French language, and named Rachael with an extra a",

but, I'd have to got with Rachael nee Phillipses' translation. Both "slave" and "brother" are singular, and the tense of "to be" is continuous past.

I offer that up almost exclusively because I've always wanted to be one of those geeky commenters who go nuts over verb declensions and such. Granted, I don't get to use all those swirly characters, but it's a start....

Pierre Saikaley said...


I know. Speak a little Francais and we get all "raised pinky finger" about words. :-)

Kim said...

I've kept this post in my favorites these past two years and listen to it about once a day during Christmas season. Thanks for reposting.

Burrito34 said...

Like many newcomers to Dan's blog, I also was unaware of the origin of "O Holy Night." Yes, I much prefer the original French version. This was well done in the style of the late Paul Harvey's "Rest of the Story" series. I only wish the "rest of the story" wav link still worked. Thanks for reposting this.

Solameanie said...

Thank you, Dan, for posting this. Tweeting it out and linking to it on FB and other outlets. Wonderful and instructive.

Bike Bubba said...

Singing the mistranslation for church cantata....can I pull together French pronunciation in time to really pull a fast one. :^)

My husband is jealous of those guys hitting those high Cs and Bs. :^)