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'O Holy Night' sets the bar high among popular Christmas carols

The often-recorded, difficult song has moments of soaring drama, and for some performers, some laughs too. Think Cartman of 'South Park.'

December 19, 2012|By Marcia Adair
  • Rufus Wainwright performs "O Holy Night" during his holiday concerts.
Rufus Wainwright performs "O Holy Night" during his holiday… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Caruso, Bjorling, Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo, Alagna, Kaufmann, Florez and (Eric) Cartman. One of these things is not like the other, 'tis true, but there is one way in which they are kind of the same: They have all recorded versions of "O Holy Night." In fact it seems there is hardly a singer who hasn't.

Most Christmas music is meant for group singing, so, unless you are a soprano singing the descant, Christmas caroling doesn't require a lot of vocal skill. "O Holy Night," on the other hand, written in 1847 by French composer Adolphe Adam as a setting of the poem "Minuit, chr├ętiens," offers the irresistible combination of operatic drama and technical difficulty.

No stranger to the dramatic moment, Rufus Wainwright sings "O Holy Night" at all his Christmas concerts. "It's the most operatic of all Christmas songs, for sure. With that high note near the very end, you go an octave, there's a lot to aim for. It's kind of like a slow rising alp that you eventually hope to scale."

Of course, the higher the drama, the more potential for comedy.

VIDEO: 'O Holy Night' - Eight unforgettable performances

Said Wainwright, "My grandmother always sang it in French, it was her big piece. We'd all do our little Christmas songs and then we would clear the stage and let Grandma end the show with her big dramatic moment. There's that line, 'fall on your knees', and she would fall on her knees in the most funny way. I take it a little more seriously now."

Finbar Wright has sung Christmas concerts all over the United States for 12 years as part of the Irish Tenors. One night in Houston, things went a bit wrong.

"We had a slightly older guest conductor and he had this kind of thing where he would sing very quietly with the singers," he said, laughing at the memory. "Over the general clatter of an orchestra and three tenors the audience usually couldn't hear it, but it just so happened on this night that the first violinist's microphone was very close to the conductor. He really loved 'O Holy Night' and started getting carried away, slightly out of tune and not quite hitting it. He got louder and louder until the first violinist broke down laughing. Then her neighbor started and next thing you know, the whole thing ground to a halt.

"Everybody took it in a great spirit. The conductor was very apologetic, and we just started it again. The funny thing is that the resumed performance had taken on a completely different life because suddenly it seemed like a special emotion had been injected into the whole thing. The humanity had been brought back into the divine."

As Cartman of "South Park" found out to his detriment in Season 3's episode "Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics," because "O Holy Night" is not a singalong standard, the words remain for most one of the season's beautiful mysteries. (How many of us can keep going after 'dear Saviour's birth'?).

VIDEO: 'O Holy Night' - Eight unforgettable performances

The high note at the end is what listeners wait for. While the high C-sharp in gospel singer David Phelps' version is a thing to behold, perhaps the most epic rendering of "O Holy Night" is the hideously out-of-tune version that has gone viral. Originally a spontaneous sendup of all the mistakes amateur singers make, recorded after a long day of work in the studio, the parody was never meant for the general public. In the Internet age, nothing stays a secret for long, and in 2007, after nearly 20 years of remaining anonymous, Nashville arranger Steve Mauldin finally outed himself as the singer.

After 165 years, the opening arpeggios of "O Holy Night" have become a kind of shorthand for "something interesting is starting." Whatever happens, funny, serious, good or bad, one thing is certain: You're in for a treat.

The Irish Tenors will try not to get the giggles at the Cerritos Center on Thursday and Rufus will maximize the drama along with his sister Martha at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday and Saturday. For Mauldin's parody, Google "O Holy Night, Original Singer "or on iTunes look for "Funny O Holy Night."

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