Franz Xaver Gruber, Joseph Mohr: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem."
~Douglas Adams 

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a group of Serbians (and one Bosniak). This act had a cascading effect, and thus began war like the world had never before seen. Exacerbated by uneasy truces and complicated alliances in a pre-war Europe marked by territorial disputes and multifaceted nationalism, European powers quickly entrenched themselves against each other and what ensued was a massive tactical stalemate which led to war lasting over four years and claiming the lives of 16 million humans.  A tragic consequence of this was that the regions where these conflicts were established would soon become bombarded beyond repair.

"No Man's Land"

By November 1914, there was a continuous line running from the North Sea off the coast of Belgium down to the Swiss border.  Both sides had no advantage over the other and had fortified themselves by digging trenches that offered barely enough protection for the belligerents to survive well enough to rain munitions and gas on each other day after day.  If one party did establish an advantage and actually manage to take more ground, they would quickly be repelled before ever getting the opportunity to defend and hold it. 

However, not all areas of the front were as ruthlessly violent as it may seem.  There are notes and journals from many on the front line, particularly in regions less hotly contested, where a sort of camaraderie arose between the opposing armies as they continuously bombed, shot and gassed one another.  Many of the trenches were within earshot and in the lull between aggressions there would be the occasional communication between sides. Often this would simply be to arrange a mutual time to collect the dead and dying from the appropriately named "no man's land", but as the war lurched on, a strange fraternity began between murderous men who were merely cogs in the machine set in motion by the powers that be.  In some cases truces would take place throughout the night and men from each army would inquire as to how the other was "getting along".  A bond of mutual suffering, perhaps, but also known as the "live and let live" mentality.  Both sides knew the predicaments and isolation facing each other better than anyone else and that also bred a sort of mutual understanding.

Bear in mind, many of these soldiers were relatively young as the age of enlistment was not stringently enforced on either side, so it was not particularly unusual for infantry as young as 16 to be found in the trenches.  This was also well before the era of instant communication and certain regions of the Western front were very isolated from the rest of the world, so communication over no man's land could very well have been the only way to get news from home under certain circumstances, particularly in occupied Belgium where many of the fighting had family in occupied territory.  Now the actual going's on of the prototypical trench war-farer cannot be described with absolute certainty. However, knowing that a great deal were boys, away from home for possibly the first time, being made to sit in frozen mud all day, suffering under the tyranny of machine gun fire, artillery, and chlorine gas- it's not a stretch of the imagination to believe what happens next.


Almost a century prior, in 1816, an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) wrote a poem which he entitled "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht".  The work itself describes the scene immediately following the birth of Jesus and relates to the scripture surrounding the implications of this event. Mohr was at the time serving in a small village outside Berchtesgaden when he drafted the text.

Mohr was a child born out of wedlock and his father was out of the picture, but he was fortunate enough to receive consideration from the Catholic church and thus was educated and learned to play the guitar and violin as well as sing.  In 1811 he began seminary and by 1815 he had been ordained as a priest.

By 1818, he would find himself in the small village of Oberndorf serving as an assistant priest. Now this is where the story gets a little convoluted.  For some reason, Mohr felt an urgent need to take his poem and put it to song in time for the Christmas mass at midnight.  We'll explore that in a moment, but know that he felt it was important enough that he set out to the neighboring town of Arnsdorf to meet up with his friend and fellow musician and Austrian, Franz Gruber (1787-1863).

Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon.
Gruber was born to a family of linen weavers, though he would eventually study to become a school teacher as well as apprenticing under the tutelage of his church's organist, Georg Hartdobler.  In 1816, he took the position of organist and choirmaster at the St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, which is presumably where he came to know Mohr who a short time later was appointed assistant priest to the church in late 1817, possibly early 1818.  Now the fateful night in question has been romanticized many times over since the inception of the tune we are discussing today, but here are the facts.  We know that Mohr wrote the poem in 1816.  We also know from autographed manuscripts from 1820, that Gruber is indeed the author of the melody.  An interesting side note is that his authorship was contested until as recently as 1994, when the 1820 edition was rediscovered and its heritage was made intact. Previously, it had been erroneously attributed to Beethoven, Mozart, or Haydn.

Mohr visited Gruber on Christmas Eve, which being as he was clergy and Gruber was the music director is not an unusual thing in and of itself prior to a big service like Christmas mass.  There is a legend that the church organ had broken down for some reason.  I found a few sources claiming it to be due to flooding of a nearby river, rust from lack of maintenance, and even damage from a mouse.

"And so Mickey returns to Valhalla, to slumber and feed."
Another theory is that Mohr, being a guitarist himself wanted to have a special hymn that would be suitable for the instrument and worked with Gruber to create the new hymn to be performed later that evening back in Oberndorf.  The rationale is not of particular importance, but know that many sources on the work tend to implicate some sort of preternatural circumstances that inspired the music to be married to the words.  The reality is we don't know. Neither Mohr nor Gruber ever wrote about it, and only the manuscripts remain.

So in a few hours time Gruber had completed the music and returned with Mohr to the church.  For the mass, the piece was premiered with Mohr singing and accompanying on guitar and Gruber singing and directing the choir, which echoed the last two lines of each of the six stanzas.  The work was well-recieved that evening and was reworked by Gruber several times in the coming months. It remained a local sensation being that Gruber and Mohr lived in the 19th century and they couldn't just upload it to their YouTube channel.

Over the next few decades the piece traveled throughout Austria and into neighboring European countries, carried perhaps initially by organ repairman, Karl Mauracher from Zillertal in the neighboring Austrian state of Tyrol.  Thus, the piece adopted a moniker as the "Tyrolean Carol" despite the fact that it originated within the state of Salzburg.

Despite this misnomer, the work was carried on and about Europe as traveling musical groups, akin to the Von Trapp family singers, incorporated the work into their performances.  It was eventually performed for royalty and even made its way to New York City by 1839, being premiered there by the Ranier Family outside the Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.  In 1859 an English language translation was published by then-priest John Freeman Young, who was at that time working at the Trinity Church as an assistant to what could be considered an inter-church communication department where his fluency in multiple languages paid off as an editor.  He also dabbled in translation of musical text which is what presumably led him to his work with Stille Nacht.  As far as I can determine, he was not present at the Ranier performance, as he had been working in Florida, Texas and Louisiana as a deacon prior to his appointment in New York.  He would later return to Florida, working in Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and various regions in South Florida, including what is now Dade county and the Keys.  In 1867 he was ordained Bishop of the Florida diocese of the Episcopal church.

We was too late.

The version you recognize today is not the same as what the congregants of the St. Nicholas cathedral would have heard.  Being passed organically as it passed through many people and languages, there has been considerable alterations made to the melody, most notably the omission of many of the ornamentations that Gruber initially wrote.  I was able to find a version on YouTube that attempts to reproduce the original performance based on what I would have to assume is the 1820 autograph manuscript.  Behold-

You will notice that the last two lines in each stanza have a bit more of a melismatic flair to them than the standard we know today.  It is also a bit more waltz-like in terms of tempo than most of the renditions that we hear today.  In America, the piece is often performed during Christmas Eve services when candles are distributed to parishioners and lit from the Christ candle.  A similar tradition is observed in Austria, where it is considered a national treasure, and the work is typically not performed publicly prior to Christmas Eve, contrary to what we do over here which is play it starting in late August.

Joseph Mohr continued his life as a clergyman, donating much of his salary toward causes like eldercare and education for local children, he himself being a product of financial assistance through the church.  He was honored posthumously by the people of Wagrain in Salzburg, who named the Joseph Mohr School in his memory.  In a report to the bishop, the overseer of St. Johann in Tirol apparently described Mohr as "... a reliable friend of mankind..."


Christmas Eve 1914.  The war had been waging for several months and as stated before, most of the war-zones were effectively stalemated, which resulted in the unusual "live and let live" mentality tentatively holding in various positions along the front.  This manifested in large scale during the cold, Christmas Eve night when as many as 100,000 soldiers declared an unofficial truce and crossed the trenches into No Man's Land, where they exchanged rudimentary gifts with their enemies, often just swapping buttons off their uniforms or sharing rations or tobacco together.  They conducted joint burial services for their fallen and possibly engaged in matches of soccer (or football- depending on your perspective).  It is described in the journal of Captain Robert Patrick Miles of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry:
Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. 
The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. 
Not a shot was fired all night.

In some regions the truce continued onward through the new year, with many soldiers simply refusing to retreat to cover and the other side not willing to murder them in cold-blood.  It was such a unique set of circumstances for this to occur, in the shadow of the most destructive event to date in mankind's history- to think humanity might've prevailed, even for a fleeting moment.

The war engineers of the day saw differently.  Much of the Christmas Truce was suppressed in the media in Germany and France, and only came to light in England and America a week after the initial event.  It was lamented that following such a respite from the slaughtering, the violence would simply resume.  In Germany and France it was considered treasonous behavior and subsequent Christmas' saw only attempts at fraternity being made, but such advances ultimately rebuffed.

Much like the history of Silent Night, the Christmas Truce is an easy target for holiday romanticization. There is no shortage of breathless hyperbole and evangelistic-driven commentary available on both events which in my opinion serve only to cheapen the memories of the actors behind the experiences.

We do know that by 1914, Silent Night was as well-known in England, Belgium and France as it was in Germany and Austria.  The words were translated, but the melody remained mostly intact and universally understood.  And we also know that at least in one instance, somewhere in the miles of filth, metal and blood, someone began singing it in their native tongue, only to hear it echoed en masse from across the way.  The melody taken by itself is a simple one, perhaps set apart from its humble beginnings and text, it might not have even merited a publication.  However, this simple act of singing, coupled with the exhaustion of war and death caused a remarkable thing to happen, however brief it may have been.

I think it speaks volumes to how we perceive and observe Christmas today. And no, this isn't a sort of commentary on the calamitous commercialization of the holiday, or a diatribe on the Puritanical reaction to a perceived "War on Christmas".  In this example it took the force of tens of millions of individuals, all disturbed in the wake of a cataclysmic series of events, all pushing an unstoppable force into an immovable object, driven by a seemingly infinite supply of resources devoted to obliteration to create a lull at the event horizon.  Within that lull, a small quiet stillness occurred that, beyond all the noise and fury of propaganda and drums, allowed the germination of a small realization. The realization that despite our different clothes and languages and homelands we exist together.  Together on this speck of dust floating in a vacuum so large that it defies mortal comprehension.

And within that infinitesimally small and quiet space, someone began to sing.

See you next Friday.



Many thanks to Bill Egan and the late John Cowart for their highly-informative and insightful commentary which provided a great deal of the research for my own entry and pointed me in some interesting directions.



Miles Goodman, Paul Williams: The Muppet Christmas Carol

“Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. 
Mind! I don't mean to say that, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.” 
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Jim Henson (1936-1990) began professionally playing with puppets in 1958, founding the then-titled Muppets, Inc. which you probably now know as the Jim Henson Company. Henson created several characters and skillfully brought them to life through the magic of puppetry. Tragically, he died in 1990, from a late-diagnosed infection in his lungs. At his funeral, many of the puppeteers and voice actors that helped him create the Muppet universe reprised the many roles for which they were responsible and shared remembrances of him through song. The Wikipedia article describes it well:

"In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour service, six of the core Muppet performers—Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, and Richard Hunt—sang, in their characters' voices, a medley of Jim Henson's favorite songs, eventually ending with a performance of "Just One Person" that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. Henson employee Chris Barry writes that during each verse, "each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters." The funeral was later described by Life as 'an epic and almost unbearably moving event.'"

Prior to his death, Henson had been in talks with Disney about merging his company with the larger corporation, but negotiations had been halted after his passing. Henson's son Brian took the helm and instead negotiated a deal regarding release rights and began to pursue completing Jim's most recent project, A Muppet Christmas Carol.


Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived in a time before the internet, and therefore also a time before people communicated platforms of social change by sharing memes on Facebook.

Instead, Dickens and his contemporaries would write pamphlets or essays describing the social ills of Victorian Europe and hope that through their publication, the masses would come to understand their point of view. This worked out much as you might imagine it would today.

In 1843, Dickens was facing a decline in popularity and sought to craft a work that would provide a new and enduring source of income. He was also beset by the social injustice of his day, particularly as it related toward children and the lack of any regulation over the employment of young ones. He himself spent time in a blacking factory at a young age in order to support his family whilst his father was incarcerated, an experience that left him both scarred and emboldened with a sense of equality amongst the various social classes. 
Dickens wanted to create something that would express his discontent with the nature of avarice and classism that pervaded London, but he also wanted it to be something that people would actually want to read, thus giving it half a chance of actually changing people's minds. So, he tapped into the Victorian love affair with the Christmas tradition and paired that with his own childhood trauma, made a bi-personality cross-section of his father and Bob's your uncle- a Christmas Carol.

Success was immediate. In England it was revered and established as a "new gospel" of the day, evoking the humanistic response that Dickens had envisioned. Many who read it were inspired by the redemption of Scrooge, perhaps to say that it was relieving to learn that no human could ever sink low enough so as to be immune to atonement of the soul, the spirit. As a result of the archetypal qualities inherent to the story, it quickly became a tome to tell and retell, being set for stage in no time at all.

This brings us to our example today. Carol had a tremendous impact on Victorian society and heavily influences the contemporary observance of Christmas around the globe. Many of the less sacred traditions had been eroded by Puritanism.  Puritans of course being a group who firmly believed that if they weren't going to have fun, then they had better make damn sure nobody else did either.

Shortly before his death, Jim Henson had been planning to create a Muppet edition of the Christmas Carol with the Disney collaboration, and his son Brian directed the production two years following his father's death in 1990. The adaptation is remarkably true to the original work, omitting little and frequently utilizing Dickens' own words throughout the screenplay. It is one of the few Muppet movies to utilize a majority of human actors in major roles with Muppets in supporting roles.  

The film was scored by Miles Goodman (1949-1996), who had worked with Frank Oz on some of his projects, and had songs written by Paul Williams (b. 1940). Goodman first developed an interest in film scoring from learning of the career from his cousin, Johnny Mandel. Goodman moved to Los Angeles, studied composition and theory and eventually broke his way into film scoring due to a natural talent for orchestration. 

Paul Williams is probably better known for his work in popular music, having written hits for David Bowie, the Carpenters, and Three Dog Night. Williams connected with Henson in 1979 and cowrote "Rainbow Connection" with Kenneth Ascher. Interestingly enough, Williams also played roles on the screen in several Muppet-related productions as well as other film and television shows on which he occasionally wrote music. 

An interesting note of production drama is the omission of "When Love is Gone" from the theatrical release, and several subsequent home releases. During this song, Belle sings about how Scrooge only cares about money and a pivotal moment of character development occurs as we learn of how Scrooge lost her affections in favor of his lust for wealth. Allegedly, Jeffrey Katzenberg thought kids would not connect here and thus the song was cut, however the reprise, "When Love is Found" remained intact at the conclusion of the film. 

The work is a refreshing retelling of the classic story, clad in the anticipated antics that comes with a Muppets title. Michael Caine is a convincing Scrooge, and the warmth and spirit of the message comes through in spades. The score only amplifies this effect, while not showing us anything remarkably different from the prototypical Hollywood musical, the tunes are catchy and heart-warming and will definitely leave you humming along as you go about your business. A good deal of allure surrounding the original work comes from the fact that it is not a straightforward Christmas story, but more correctly a ghost story on and about Christmastime and the Henson treatment provides an appropriate climate for this, with healthy interspersions of comedy to alleviate nightmares in younger viewers. 

All your base are belong to us.
The music carries the film well, and endears the characters to us as we bear witness to Scrooge's development. Perhaps the most enjoyable tune for me comes from the Ghost of Christmas Present, who greets us with "It Feels Like Christmas", a spirited jaunt through Christmas day and all that it entails. 

I've written a lot lately about how much we structure the holiday to be driven toward some insanely jolly and nigh-unachievable "perfect" Christmas. We are comforted by this song in the sense that Christmas can be found in many places, and it doesn't necessarily take anything special to observe the warmth of the holiday, beyond an open heart and mind, something that Scrooge himself must work at to perfect. 

It's not what we've got, but who we've got that counts and that to seek out the seemingly "little things" makes the season all that more special. 

See you next Friday.




Buck Ram, Walter Kent, Kim Gannon: I'll Be Home For Christmas

So we've had a couple weeks of French music.  That wasn't by design, but more so related to the intensely cerebral process I utilize to pick pieces of music to wax intellectual about.  It begins by determining that it's not Friday and that I don't have to worry about it for a few days.  Then Thursday happens and I promise myself to spend a least a modicum of time doing some background research, though at this point it's not even necessary to have chosen a title.  Then Friday happens and I begin to frantically look for inspiration in the Amazon Prime Music Christmas Station, which when set to "Classical" will only play the Nutcracker Suite or the Piano Guys cover of "Let It Go".

I got interested in a "Carol of the Bells"-"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" mish-mash that these guys did, but soon became disinterested after realizing that they really weren't bringing anything new to the table.  I've heard a lot of people talking about them and of course the sharing of things on Facebook seems to feature them a fair bit, but honestly it sounds like this generation's version of Liberace.

To me, it all just sounds like psuedo-classical music manufactured for people who don't really like music anyway, but like other people to assume that they're cultured.  Nothing is new and unique about any of the arrangements I've listened to- and yes they do arrange certain pieces together that are unique to each other, but nothing changes about the style or the structure.  Nothing like Holst's superposition of "Greensleeve's" over the "Dargason" in any event.  Or James Barnes massive undertaking on the 24th Caprice by Paganini.  Both of those pieces took music we'd heard many times over and found something new and different to share.  "Oh!  Oh!  But Mr. Music Snob!" you protest.  "You haven't seen that one video where they all play the piano and screw around with the inside of it! That's new and different!"

"Bitch, please." - John Cage
And even then, Maurice Delage and Henry Cowell were doing the prepared piano and pluck the strings thing back in the early 1900's to boot!  My main argument stands- I see nothing new and different about what they offer the musical world.  However, this isn't a tirade about that.  This is a an post about a man named Kim Gannon (1900-1974) and something he shared with Bing Crosby on a golf course in 1943.

The year is of particular note as at this point in history, the United States was heavily embroiled in what would later be confirmed as World War II.  Evidently the "War to End All Wars" was ineffective and thusly was retroactively named "WWI".  Gannon was a lawyer, having graduated Albany Law School he passed the New York State bar exam in the mid-30's. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of information about his youth and education, so I'm having a hard time explaining the jump from lawyer to hit Broadway/Movie lyricist, but jump he did.  In 1942 he had caught the attention of Glenn Miller, who recorded his "Moonlight Cocktail" and he shortly transitioned to full-time lyric-writing.

Of interesting note is a copyright claim by another accomplished lyricist/poet named Samuel "Buck" Ram (1907-1991), who in December of 1942 had copyrighted a song called "I'll Be Home for Christmas (Tho' Just in Memory)" which according to Wikipedia did not exactly resemble the product put out by Gannon and music by Walter Kent (1911-1994). Apparently they had been made aware of the song while having drinks together with Ram who related that his publisher had put the brakes on its release until after Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" had its run.  In light of the similarity of the Gannon/Kent version, Ram's publisher filed suit and won.

Gee, officer...I swear I have the license around here somewhere...

Bing Crosby is possibly the most well-known performer of this work, though it has been recorded a ridiculous number of times.  The lyrics describe the traditional dream of the warm, family-centric Christmas, but it ends somberly, explaining that the narrator might only see this idyllic scene in his dreams.  Gannon claimed to have written it, reminded of the many thousands of soldiers who would be celebrating Christmas in foreign lands, away from the comforts of home.  Ram claims his version was written at age 16 as a gift for his mother while he was away at college.

No matter the authorship, the theme is universal.  In the US, the song was credited for raising troop morale, and awareness of the challenges those that were serving faced, not just from the physical threat of their enemies, but the psychological impacts related to separation from everything they cherished.  The song speaks to the attainment of the "perfect Christmas" and therefore perhaps could be interpreted to reflect the inaccessibility of what we all perceive individually to be home.  It doesn't matter what stands in the way, be it war, travel, work, or depression.  We all have felt the absence of happiness and warmth in our lives, and so Gannon and Ram speak to us through Kent and Crosby.

So, I began today complaining about unoriginality being praised in music land and I would be remiss to leave you with something we've all heard before, not to knock ol' Bing's rendition, but let's take a shot at something that might be new to some of you.  The United State's Airforce has a jazz band, known as the Airmen of Note, who derive their ancestry through the incomparable Glenn Miller who once led the Army Air Force Jazz band and began a tradition of insanely talented musicians and kick-ass jazz bands that continues to this day.  This track comes from their "Cool Yule" album, where they take Christmas classics and shoehorn them into Big Band era classics.  In the case of I'll Be Home for Christmas, they arrange it stylized as the Glenn Miller Band's "Moonlight Serenade".

I find it very appropriate, knowing the sacrifice Miller himself made, and though I don't know that it was a conscious decision on the part of the band's arranger, it serves as a fitting tribute just the same.

See you next Friday.




Adolphe Adam: Cantique de Noël, text by Placide Cappeau

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms— this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men."
- Albert Einstein                             

- From Living Philosophies, 1931 

Placide Cappeau (1808-1877) was born into a family of wine and barrel makers in a small town in southern France.  At the age of 8, he was accidentally shot in the hand by a friend and as a result had his right hand amputated.  I was not able to find specific details on the incident, but the fateful friend's father, a Mr. Brignon, paid for the young Cappeau to attend a private school and as a result he was able to go on to college where he would pursue a life of academia and study law in Paris.  He was an artist and an author of poetry and literature.  He would return to the family business and become a merchant of wine and fine liquors, but he did dabble in politics becoming mayor of his home town of Roquemaure.  Cappeau never lost his interest in the art of the written word, and as a result he plays an important role in our lesson today. He was an intellectual, a non-Christian and would become a bit of a free-thinker and be accused of being a socialist.

Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) was born to a musical father and the daughter of a physician in Paris. His father, Jean-Louis Adam, was a professor of composition at the Paris Conservatory and was opposed to his son's pursuit of a musical career.  Adolphe's initial forays into the musical realm were whimsical and improvised, but eventually his father would relent and allow him to study organ at the conservatory.  Adolphe would soon become a popular composer for music in the Paris vaudeville houses and he would successfully finance and open his own opera house, only to be shut down months later by the 1848 revolution in France.  However, he would emerge from financial ruin due to his fame from his vaudeville days and a burgeoning career as a music journalist.  He would return to the conservatory later in life as a teacher, ultimately following in the footsteps of his father.

In 1843, the Catholic church in Roquemaure completed renovations on their organ and the priest determined that it merited a dedication of literary proportions and thus commissioned Cappeau being that he was a local wordsmith of relative fame.  The poem he completed was entitled, "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians).  The first two stanzas correlate heavily with Luke's account of the birth of Christ, but in the first stanza more of Cappeau's ideology comes to the surface:
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
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.
It was this portion that would eventually catch the eye of Unitarian minister and music writer, John Sullivan Dwight who would eventually translate it it to English, but we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves now.

Cappeau's poem was well-received and as a result he sought out a composer to set the text to song. During a trip to Paris, he was able to petition Adolphe Adam, with whom he shared mutual friends, a Mr. and Mrs. Laurey.  Adam was at a height of popularity at the time and finished the song in short order and the completed work was premiered in Roquemaure in 1847 to immediate acclaim and was rocked out to in many a household in France.

"The fidelity, Jean-Luc! My God the FIDELITY!"
Some time later, however, the work was attacked and defamed as a result of it's lyricist's political standings.  In 1848, France underwent a revolution against the largely conservative ruling class.  It ended ultimately with the establishment of a new government, but one that sought to placate the radical leftist movement that had sieged Paris.  The new government attempted to create jobs for the unemployed through civic works projects, however most of the projects were unnecessary and only fueled further anger at the class inequality.  The problem for the reformers though was that the majority of rural France was still largely conservative, so after the initial wave of liberalism, the tide shifted and Napoleon I's nephew was elected on a somewhat liberal platform (and obvious name-brand recognition), only to take pretty drastic measures to reduce unrest in Paris and regain control.

He would eventually come to lead a coup, ending in him claiming the title Emperor Napoleon III, but getting worked over by some turbo-charged Prussians.  However, one significant outcome of the 1848 revolution was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

So, Cappeau was a bit of a liberal for his time and outspoken enough in his writings that the Christian conservatives took umbrage at the popularity of his work and began to cast aspersions toward it. They even went as far to call out Adolphe Adam for being a Jew, though my research uncovered that he wasn't (interestingly enough I found no shortage of websites telling the story of this piece by incorrectly proclaiming: a priest, an atheist and a Jew walk into a bar...).

The silly part is that Cappeau really wasn't any sort of revolutionary figure so far as I can tell.  He marketed wine, he like to read and write, and was well-educated.  It just so happened that he also had come to think that maybe people shouldn't be treated differently because of their social standing.

But slander the religious conservatives did.  Despite this, the piece found its way to London and was translated many times over, eventually coming across the desk of the aforementioned John Sullivan Dwight who, being an American living in the year 1858, also found the topic of human slavery particularly of note.

It was Dwight who penned the version that you are most likely familiar with.  It is an interesting rendition and holds on to the majority of the intention from the straight translation of Cappeau's poem, though he does take a slightly more religious tone in the third stanza, owing much of the deliverance from oppression to God, whereas love tends to be a more central theme in Cappeau's original.

What I find fascinating is that the whole work is an interpretation of the birth of Christ, a central moment in Christian theology, through the lens of a non-believer.  And that's an intentionally poor choice of words, because I feel that Cappeau was indeed a believer, but perhaps in the way the priest who commissioned this work would have liked.

Cappeau experienced, what I can only assume, was a formative, life-altering event at a very early age.  Perhaps he had grown up in this sleepy little town, surrounded by average families and assuming that one day, like his father, he would be hammering wine casks together and plodding his trail in the family trade.  But in a moment that changed.  With the loss of his hand, and the guilt and subsequent generosity of the Brignon's, he was awarded the opportunity to explore and create his own unique beliefs.  To drink deep of the intellectual fount.  He then came to what is interestingly enough not altogether a different conclusion than what we ourselves might come to find from the teachings of Christ, some thirty years past that fateful night of his birth.  And because of Cappeau's beliefs, he was rebuked and his work tarnished.

I invoked Einstein at the start because he too was not what most of us could call a believer, but again that is not to say he was without belief.  To Einstein, God was the god of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who, in a very tiny nutshell, believed the world and universe, as we perceive it, to be a total manifestation of God in the sense that all the natural order that surrounds us and the simplicity and harmony in which it fits and works together is in and of itself God.  Einstein believed that the study of the natural, physical world was in and of itself the most important religion, and that to lose touch with the awe and wonder that surrounds us is akin to death.

I am reminded, perhaps unfortunately, of a show called "Firefly".  It was a short-lived TV drama created by Joss Whedon that spawned a fervent fan-base and a movie, but did not survive long enough to flesh out most of its character story arcs.  One such character was known simply as Shepherd Book.  We are led to believe that he is a religious figure of sorts, but no specific religion is named and many of his actions and skillset seem contrary to what you might expect from a man of God.

Now, if you don't want spoilers, skip to the example video now.


In the movie, Mal returns to find the Shepherd mortally wounded and dying on a hillside.  As he kneels beside his friend, waiting for medical aid that doesn't come soon enough, Book leaves us with this:
I don’t care what you believe. Just believe it.
It reeks a bit of the dramatics, coming from a pop-sci-cowboy-spaghetti-western-in-space sort of show, and to a non-fan of the series I'd expect you might find it mere enthusiasm.

However, when I read between the lines of Cappeau's "Minuit, chrétiens", I witness the portrait of a man who believed- in what is not my place to say exactly...

But I am comforted by it just the same.

See you next Friday.


Our example today is an arrangement by the remarkable jazz composer/arranger Tom Kubis and the Maynard Ferguson protege, Wayne Bergeron crushing it on lead trumpet.



Hector Berlioz: L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherd's Farewell)

So for our first example this Christmas season we're exploring a piece by a French Romantic composer that doesn't necessarily center around the Christmastime canon, but certainly maintains a strong foothold in the Christmas story and the ensuing days of Christ's life following his birth in Bethlehem.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a composer that shaped and pushed the boundaries of western art music both within his lifetime and the years beyond.  He took a peculiar path toward musical stardom, one that ran afoul of his own parent's wishes for him to become a doctor.  He would travel to Paris to attend medical school, but by 1824 he would drop out and begin to pursue a musical career at the Paris Conservatory.

Berlioz did not fit the mold of the "child prodigy" musicians like Mozart and Beethoven who began composing shortly after birth. He never was classically trained in piano, instead learning guitar, flute and the "flageolet" which is kinda like those recorders you play in elementary school, but not nearly as obnoxious sounding.

It's getting a little meta in here.
Berlioz would sneak into the conservatory library prior to his enrollment to copy the scores of composers he admired, and was actually thrown out by the music director at the time, Italian composer, Luigi Cherubini, with which he would maintain a contentious, but musically fruitful relationship.

You see, Berlioz had a problem.  Music in France at this time was still pretty conservative with regard to the expansion of Romanticism and paradoxically Berlioz was a total Romantic, in terms of music and in terms of his personality.  He was a big reader of the Roman poet, Virgil, and Shakespeare and he had a deep appreciation for the "chase" of passion, as evidenced in his pursuit of the affectations of a certain actress, Harriet Smithson.  Following his attending one of her performances in a traveling English theatre company he began sending her love notes incessantly which basically freaked her the hell out.

Despite these initial hardships, they would eventually get married and would've lived happily ever after if it weren't for the fact that Harriet only spoke English and Berlioz French, and that they both were fairly hot-tempered, opinionated, and aggressive.  Berlioz would support Harriet for the rest of her life, having married her after her fame as an actress had already begun to fade.  

Berlioz's music was much more technically challenging than that of his French contemporaries and almost universally hated by the Paris critics who were used to the refined (read: boring) music that was still popular despite that significant advancements Beethoven was pushing over in Germany. This would remain a point of contention in the advancement of Berlioz's career throughout his entire life.  In an effort to garner attention (read: earn a living wage and not starve to death in the street) Berlioz would end up traveling around Europe, where he found work as a music critic himself and as a pretty accomplished conductor.  He had a pretty unrestrained distaste for many of the conductors of his music as the emphasis on melody and expanded instrumentation did not lend itself to the more simplistic, post-Classical conducting style.  

Berlioz found a great appreciation abroad, touring extensively in Russia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and England, but found a cold reception in France, causing him to remark that "France is becoming more and more philistine towards music, and the more I see of foreign lands the less I love my own. Art, in France, is dead; so I must go where it is still to be found."  Despite the open hostility in the Parisan media, in 1850 he was appointed head librarian to the Paris Conservatory. This was his first and only steady gig, and offered him some freedom from the incessant cycle of composing and performing which frequently resulted in financial distress.  During this time, he composed our example for today, L'adieu des bergers or The Shepherd's Farewell.  

Berlioz was not outwardly religious, but held an appreciation for the beauty of the religious music he had been exposed to in childhood.  This piece was originally conceived as an organ work for his buddy, Joseph-Louis Duc, and Berlioz eventually expanded it into a choral work, writing the text based on Matthew 2:13, which described Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt in order to prevent the death of the newborn baby Jesus from King Herod's decree that all male infants be killed within Bethlehem city limits.  

Sales of George R.R. Martin's "The Bible for Children" have been muted
The text in the work is written from the perspective of the shepherds who were witness to the first Christmas as they bid the young family speedy and safe deliverance from the cruel fate that remained for them in Bethlehem.  Berlioz would eventually expand upon the work, crafting it into a full oratorio known as "L'enfance du Christ" fleshing out the story more to include Herod's decree, their journey along "the way of the sea" (a Roman coastal road connecting Palestine and Egypt), and Christ's early childhood.  An oratorio is a large choral work which follows a similar format of an opera, but without the dramatic staging and scenery.  The orchestra is typically standard-sized as opposed to the reduced size pit orchestras, and all performers remain on stage.  Soloists typically sit in the front and stand when performing.  

In the case of The Shepherd's Farewell, Berlioz decided to have a bit of fun at the expense of the Parisian know-it-all's.  He premiered the work under false pretenses, claiming to have rediscovered it from the writings of some 17th-century composer named Ducré (who did not exist).  Correctly suspecting that many of his antagonists would ordinarily just shitpost (to use the parlance of our time) all over his work without actually critiquing it, he thought he'd introduce it in this way to get an objective appraisal of his work.  

The reviews for the work of the cherished, but fictional, Ducré garnered almost universal praise in the papers with some going so far as to say that Berlioz himself could learn much from the old master. Berlioz responded thusly:

Once the dust settled, the critics attempted to save face by observing that the style of this new work was much calmer than the raucous mayhem of Berlioz's previous works to which Berlioz explained: 
In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'enfance du Christ in the same manner twenty years ago.
If you read carefully between the lines, you can see a thinly veiled barb about the critics' taste and simple music.  Berlioz was as much a master of literary skill as he was of music, and a lesser known fact remains that he was a rather prolific author, both of musical critiques and scholarly texts, perhaps most popular being his "Treatise on Instrumentation."  In this work, Berlioz outlines his master plan for the orchestra, highlighting the usage of the various instruments in roles that would be used to expand upon the Classical era instrumentation and create an intensely formidable ensemble, the likes of which Wagner and Mahler would absorb into their own epics.  Beethoven may have introduced us to the melody as a tool, but it was Berlioz who truly weaponized it.

One of my favorite enduring musical quotes comes from his treatise.  I first became aware of it from a copy of it adorned the door of my first trombone teacher, when I was but a mere trombone tadpole.

And to conclude today I will now share it with you:
The trombone is, in my view, the real leader among the class of wind instruments I have described as epic. It possesses to the highest degree nobility and grandeur. It commands all the accents, grave or powerful, of high musical poetry, from imposing and calm religious tones to the frenzied clamour of an orgy. 
The composer may at will make it sing a chorus of priests, threaten, utter a subdued lament, whisper a funeral dirge, raise a hymn of glory, break out in dreadful cries, or sound its formidable call for the awakening of the dead or the death of the living. 

See you next Friday.