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Stories Behind The Songs
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O Holy Night
The words of “O Holy Night” were written in 1847 by a French wine merchant named Placide Clappeau, the mayor of Roquemaure, a town in the south of France. We know little about him except that he wrote poems as a hobby.
We know more about the man who composed the music, a Parisian named Adolphe Charles Adam. The son of a concert pianist, Adams was trained almost from infancy in music and piano. In his mid—twenties, he wrote his first opera and thereafter wrote two operas a year until his death at age fifty-two. Near the end of his life, he lost his savings in a failed business venture involving the French national opera, but the Paris Conservatory rescued him by appointing him professor of music.
It was John Dwight, son of Yale’s president, Timothy Dwight, who discovered this French Carol, “Christian Midnight,” and translated it into the English hymn, “O Holy Night.”
After graduating from Harvard and Cambridge, John was ordained as minister of the Unitarian church in Northampton, but his pastoring experience wasn’t happy. In 1841, George and Sophia Ripley founded a commune named Brook Farm “to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life.” John was hired as director of the Brook Farm School and began writing a regular column on music for the commune’s publication.
Greatly influenced by the liberal views of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he became fascinated by the German culture, especially the symphonic music of Ludwig Von Beethoven, and it was largely his influence that introduced Americans to Beethoven’s genius.
When Brook Farm collapsed in 1847, Jon Dwight moved into a cooperative house in Boston and established a career in music journalism. He penned articles on music for major publications, and in 1852 he launched his own publication, “Dwight’s Journal of Music.” He became America’s first influential classical music critic. He was opinionated, sometime difficult, a great promoter of European classical music and an early advocate of Transcendentalism.
How odd that a wine merchant, a penniless Parisian, and liberal clergyman should give Christianity one of its holiest hymns about the birth of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
An English traditional Christmas carol. It was published by William B. Sandys in 1833, although the author is not absolutely known. However, two interesting things about the song’s history.
First it is referenced in the Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol written in 1843. "...at the first sound of — 'God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!'— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost." It seems the song was not popular with those who lacked the Christmas spirit let alone Christian compassion.
Secondly, although the author is officially unknown, it is believed to be a postman delivering mail at around the 1700's. He sang this song so that people would go to church.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
At nearly 6 feet six, weighing 300 pounds, Phillip Brooks cast a long shadow. He was a native Bostonian, the ninth generation of distinguished Puritan stock, who entered the Episcopalian Ministry and pastor and was a great power in Philadelphia and in Boston. His Sermons were TOPICAL rather than EXPOSITIONAL, and he’s been criticized for thinness of doctrine. Nonetheless he is considered one of America’s greatest preachers. His delivery came in lightening bursts; he felt he had more to say and less time in which to say it.
While at Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church, Phillips, 30, visited the holy land. On December 24, 1865, traveling by horseback from Jerusalem, he attended a 5 hour Christmas Eve service at the church of the nativity in Bethlehem. He was deeply moved. “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem,” he later said, “close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other all the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Savior’s birth.”
Three years later, as he prepared for the Christmas season of 1867, he wanted to compose an original Christmas hymn for the children to sing during their annual program. Recalling his magical night in Bethlehem, he wrote a little hymn of five stanzas and handed the words to his organist, Lewis Redner, saying, “Lewis, why not write a new tune for my poem. If it is a good tune, I will name it ‘St. Lewis’ after you.”
Lewis struggled with his assignment, complaining of no inspiration. Finally, on the night before the Christmas program, he awoke with the music ringing in his soul. He jotted down the melody, then went back to sleep. The next day, a group of six Sunday school teachers and thirty-six children sang, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Brooks was so pleased with the tune that he did indeed name it for his organist, changing the spelling to St. Louis, so as not to embarrass him.
Joy To The World
“Until Isaac Watts came along, most of the singing in British churches was from the Psalms of David. The church—especially the Church of Scotland—had labored over the Psalms with great effort and scholarship, translating them into poems with rhyme and rhythm suitable for singing. As a young man in Southampton, Isaac had become dissatisfied with the quality of singing, and he keenly felt the limitations of being able to only sing these Psalms. So he “invented” the English hymn.
He did not, however, neglect the Psalms. In 1719, he published a unique hymnal—one in which he had translated, interpreted and paraphrased the Old Testament Psalms through the eyes of New Testament faith. He called it simply, “The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.” Taking various Psalms, he studied them from the perspective of Jesus and the New Testament, and then formed them into verses for singing.
“I have rather expressed myself as I may suppose David would have done if he lived in the days of Christianity,” Watts explained, “and by this means, perhaps, I have sometimes hit upon the true intent of the Spirit of God in those verses farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover.”
Watt’s archenemy, Thomas Bradbury, was greatly critical of Watt’s songs, which he called “whims” instead of “hymns.” He accused Watts of thinking he was King David. Watts replied in a letter, “You tell me that I rival with David, whether he or I be the sweet psalmist of Israel. I abhor the thought: while yet, at the same time, I am fully persuaded that the Jewish psalm book was never designed to be the only Psalter for the Christian church.”
“Joy to the World!” is Isaac Watts’ interpretation of Psalm 98, which says: “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth” (verse 4.) As he read Psalm 98, Isaac pondered the real reason for shouting joyfully to the Lord—the Messiah has come to redeem us. The result, despite the now—forgotten criticisms of men like Bradbury, has been a timeless carol that has brightened our Christmas for nearly three hundred years.
Copyright (c) 1997-2012 Charles Lyons, Ph.D.
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PO Box 572665 * Houston, Texas * US * 77257-2665