Yesterday, I went to a Christmas concert given by New Zealand’s top
singing entertainer and a children’s choir. I went to see the performers and
the performance, and I knew full well that, from ‘Jingle Bells’ to ‘White
Christmas’, I wasn’t going to hear any memorable music. But I did. It was a bit
hidden away in a medley between some of the more ordinary kind of ‘carols’, but
hearing it sung live made me remember what a perfectly splendid piece it is. And
make me wonder why, as a child, I got to know ‘Jingle Bells’ and not this song.
A Christmas Carol.
Maybe it was because it is not English. Or even American. Even though,
subsequently, it had both English and American-English words adapted to it. The
‘Cantique de Noel’, otherwise ‘Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle’,
otherwise ‘Le Noël d’Adam’ was, and is, wholly French. Words by a provincial
wine merchant, civic worthy and amateur poet, Monsieur Placide Cappeau of
Roquemaure, near Avignon, and set to music by the composer Adolphe Adam, of Le Châlet, Le Postillon de Lonjumeau and
The song was to become hugely famous through C19th France, sung at
midnight masses in town and country for decades and described as ‘L’inusable’,
‘L’immortel’ (and eventually ‘inévitable’), ‘Hymne d'amour et d'espérance, c'est l'immortel Noël
d'Adam qui s'élève, religieux et grave, dans la nuit ..’, ‘Bientôt,
de la partie qui sert de chœur, une voix s'élève et lance sous la voûte les
couplets connus, mais toujours impressionnants du Noël d'Adam’. The Cantique quite simply
became the festive prayer of the season, through France, and was even heard as
far afield as Japan and China.
of fame meant that, for many decades, a plethora of articles on ‘how the Noël
d’Adam came to be written’ appeared in various newspapers and music magazines. In
the 1920s and 1930s, the tales got more florid and more and more differing in
their details and, depending which version modern writers have followed, those
tales have come down to us as a choice of ‘facts’.
that doesn’t seem to have been agreed on is the date of the piece and of its
first performance. Most pontificators say Christmas 1847, some opt for 1845,
1843 or even 1840. I thought 1847 was probably correct, until I came upon a
notice for a concert given at London’s Hanover Square Rooms by the fine
Parisian mezzo Mme Claire Hennelle in which it was reported ‘Among the pieces
which she sang last night the most remarkable was a solemn strain which she
delivered with much expression’ ‘accompanied by piano and orgue melodion’. Cantique
de Noël by Adolphe Adam. Date? 22 June 1846.
|Mme Henelle in London 1846|
suppose this could have been a different Cantique de Noël … or the newspaper
could be misdated … but I doubt it. Alas, not having the Avignonnaise
newspapers of the day, I cannot tell. But, here she is again, 3 March 1847,t the Salle Pleyel with orgue-melodion singing Adam's Cantique to 'bravos enthousiastes'. Anyway, apart from the date, there are other
points at question. I’m not going to list all the variations in the tale (some,
including some 70-80 years later, have chunks of direct speech), but the
principal players in the affair were the poet, the composer and a certain Émilie
Laurey or Lauret, wife of a local bridge-builder and amateur vocalist.
Supporting characters, the local mayor (?) Magnan, and the local priest.
story seems to have gone something vaguely like this. At a party chez M le
maire, Mr Cappeau read some of his verses and Mme Laurey sang some songs, and
someone suggested that the lady should sing a Noël at midnight mass. Mr Cappeau
proffered his verses. And the music? Mme Laurey had been a pupil, at some
stage, of Adam, and she wrote asking the ill and bankrupt musician to set the
Roquemaurian lines. Adam swiftly did so, and received – so ‘history’ says – a fulsome
response acclaiming it ‘a masterpiece’. The composer said in that case she had
better send him a copy, because he hadn’t kept one.
This reeks a
little bit of the tales of song-sketches thrown in the bin, rescued, and made
into great hits. But be it true or not, Madame Laurey sang the Noël at midnight
mass, it was much liked, Adam sent his manuscript to publisher Alexandre Grus,
and the Cantique was on its way to celebrity. ‘La Marseillaise religieuse’.
newspaper report of a public (non-church) performance in France that I have
found is when the operatic prima donna, Célestine Nathan-Treillet (a Jewish
soprano for a Jewish composer!) gave the song at Nice in 1848, although
doubtless Mme Hennelle was giving it in Paris.
I see it sung, in the 1850s, by
Achard, by Augusta Colas, Mme Lefebvure-Wely, Mlle Novara, Opéra tenor Antoine Renard and even Felice
Varesi, but apparently it was the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure who made the
biggest success with the piece, and young French baritones hurried to follow
him. But the Cantique remained above all a feature of midnight masses, from
Paris to Martinique to Indo-China.
French borders it was widely translated (Charles Lamb Kenney and George Linley
in England, J S Dwight in Boston, Robert B Smith in New York) and published in
all kinds of arrangements (the original was ‘score for voice and piano, parts for voice and
orgue mélodium’), but ‘le plus célèbre des milliers de Noëls’ doesn’t show up
that frequently on 19th century programmes. Its biggest champion
seems to have been George Risley, organist at Bristol’s Colston Hall, who
programmed it regularly. That, however, was to change. The English-singing
world might have preferred their own carols initially, but in the 20th
and 21st centuries Adam’s tune would take its place alongside ‘Good
King Wenceslas’, ‘The First Nowell’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ and their ilk in
popularity, and top of the list of those singers who had sufficient voice to
sing it. And those who didn't, 'arranged' it.
died in 1856, Cappeau in 1879. Which meant that the copyright for the piece ran
out in 1929. Thanks to Cappeau’s longevity, the Adam family had had 23 additional
years of ‘melded copyright’ on the country’s favourite Christmas song, but
Cappeau had not been a member of SACEM so all the royalties had been going to
the Adam family. In 1920, Madame Marin-Cappeau went to law, and she won. She
also apparently penned a revised version of the lyric. Which, of course, established
|An edition dedicated to the famous French baritone Jules Lefort|
It was the
time. In the 1920s and 1930s the piece finally became thoroughly internationally
popular … now every opera singer who makes a ‘popular’ Christmas record
includes a version of Noël d’Adam. By the way, it is apparently Dwight's English
translation that seems to have become standard (‘O Holy night’) but I feel it is
due for replacement!
century gave us such gemlets as ‘Petit Papa Noël’, ‘I saw mummy kissing Santa
Claus’, ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas’, and ‘All I want for Christmas
is my two front teeth’ as seasonal songs, but we still have the beautiful ‘Minuit,
chrétiens’ to remind us of a time when the 25th December had a
religious significance … and big-name composers from Beethoven to Adam wrote seasonal music.
scriptum: to hear this wonderful piece (written for a soprano, popularised by a
baritone) as-she-was-writ, listen to the delicious version of Georges Thill (tenor)