Year after year O Holy Night comes out on top as The Nation's Favourite Carol in the UK, but what are its origins and what does it take to sing it successfully?
History of O Holy Night
The song O Holy Night that we know today had its start in an 1843 French poem called Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) written by Placide Cappeau.
Cappeau's poem was set to music in 1847 by French composer Adolphe Adam, who released it under the name Cantique de Noël (Christmas Hymn). Adam was a prolific composer; by the time he wrote Cantique de Noël he had already created the ballet Giselle and several operas including Le postillon de Lonjumeau.
In 1855, the American classical music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the carol from the French original.
The text of O Holy Night celebrates the birth of Jesus and what it means for humanity's salvation. The original composition by Adam has three verses with a high note at the end. Typically, however, only verses one and three are performed.
Adolphe Adam's background as an operatic composer explains why O Holy Night is so popular - it's actually a bel canto aria masquerading as a Christmas carol. The sheer emotion of the song makes it a crowd pleaser, but its long phrases and sweeping range from low to high also present an exciting challenge for all singers.
How to Sing O Holy Night
If you are going to sing O Holy Night, here are three strategies to consider. They come from my own experience performing the song, as well as coaching others.
1. Sustain without strain
When singing through long, high phrases it is tempting to work harder and harder in your throat. Doing this, however, will cause tension and scratching. It is important to use only as much effort as you need and to put that effort in the right places.
Get your whole body involved
Your voice isn't just in your throat - to support your tone comfortably your entire body needs to get in on the action. Good posture, or alignment, is a great place to start because it will immediately stop you from overworking in your neck or jaw. It also prompts efficient, easy breathing.
Be flexible with your effort levels
An important part of Estill Voice Training is to pay attention to effort levels in voicing so that you can learn to feel when your voice is free and balanced. Because O Holy Night is a song that builds throughout and moves from low to high range, you need to be flexible about how hard you are working. Only do what it takes to stay comfortable and no more.
Tip: When you have found your comfortable effort-levels, practice silently. Lip sync through the song while breathing out as if you were singing it and learn to recognise what balanced effort feels like in your body.
2. Choose the right key and tempo
O Holy Night spans an octave plus a fifth in range and all phrases are sustained. Make it easy for yourself by staying in your best range and don't go so slow that you peter out.
Be realistic about your range
Choosing an aspirational key to sing O Holy Night is like buying clothes that are a little too small for you and hoping that it will motivate you to lose weight before a big event. This strategy may well work, but it's quite a lot of pressure to put on yourself! Pick a key that suits your voice now and not one you might achieve in three months or three years. This way you can focus on the feeling of the song and really enjoy performing.
Choose a tempo that works for you
Singing O Holy Night as a soloist is a big deal - this is your moment to shine! So don't hesitate to choose a speed that suits your voice and your version of O Holy Night. Also, don't be afraid to communicate this to your accompanist...but try not to be too much of a diva though!
Tip: Use a metronome to check in that you are practicing at your performance speed.
3. Start practicing early
O Holy Night is truly the mother of all Christmas songs, so you need to practice it little, often and well in advance of your gig. When you give yourself time to practice regularly, singing will feel easy.
Create a vocal practice routine
It pays off to break down the song and start by separating the melody line from the words. A vocal practice routine will help you to programme a muscular behaviour that will give you the sound you want in your performance.
An example of a practice routine for 'O Holy Night' could be:
1. Speak the text in rhythm. 2. Sing the tune on your favourite vowel. 3. Sing the tune on the actual vowels of the song. 4. Sing the song with the words.
Create a performance practice routine
Do what you can to get used to the circumstances of the performance.
For example, rehearse with the clothes and especially the shoes you're going to wear on the day and practice the song at the time of day you will perform it.
The muscles in your throat and body need time to learn what to do and how hard to work in order to respond to your musical imagination. Starting in good time (approximately 3 months in advance) will help these patterns become second nature. You can then just enjoy letting go and singing this beautiful song straight from the heart.
Tip: Hydration is super important in sustained singing, so be sure to plan your hydration and steaming.
Regardless of how you choose to perform O Holy Night - whether it be in a classical, gospel, rock, pop, folk or jazz style - you will need to sing sustained lines in a range that makes sense for your voice and give yourself as much time as possible to prepare.
As an operatic piece, O Holy Night is much trickier to perform than almost all other Christmas carols. Add on the early/late performance times and all the other things that life throws your way, and it can be a real bear of a task.
In fact, if you have never tackled this particular song before I strongly recommend that you get help from a vocal coach. Not only will it benefit you artistically, but because sustained singing is advanced singing, a professional voice teacher can give you the careful training and nurturing you will need.
With this gradual, intelligent training, a focus on using only as much effort as you need to and choosing the right key and tempo, you can sing O Holy Night successfully and both you and your audience will really enjoy it.
Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.