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.