History of Hymns: French carol “He Is Born” celebrates joyous season

by C. Michael Hawn

“He Is Born” (“Il Est Né”)
Traditional French carol
UM Hymnal, No. 228

He is born, the holy Child,
play the oboe and bagpipes merrily!
He is born, the holy Child,
sing we all of the Savior mild.

Thru long ages of the past,
prophets have foretold his coming;
thru long ages of the past,
now the time has come at last!

Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“The Newborn Christ,” a 17th-century painting by French artist Georges de La Tour.

I recall the delightful opportunity that my wife and I had over 20 years ago to attend Christmas Eve Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris. In many ways it was a strange event. Some people were clearly tourists, circulating around the periphery of the great cathedral. Some were like us, Christians from other places seeking a place of worship on Christmas Eve. Then there were the faithful parishioners of Paris who worshipped regularly at the Notre Dame. 

Given the French language, the wandering tourists and the vast space of the nave, the experience was rather diffuse. That is, until the great organ began to play “Il est né, le divin Enfant.” The energy in the room shifted suddenly and became vibrant with song. Even the singing of “Silent Night” was not as unifying as this favorite French carol. 

The tradition of French Christmas Carols (Chants de Noël) is a lively one. You may know more about them than you realize. “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle!” (Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle), “Angels We Have Heard on High” (Les anges dans nos campagnes), “Sing We Now of Christmas” (Noel nouvelet) and “O Holy Night” (Cantique de Noël) are four others that are among the most familiar.
Often considered the best known traditional French carol, “Il est né, le divin Enfant” comes from the region of Provence. The original version has four stanzas and the refrain. 

A variety of translations into English exist, but the one most commonly used today is by George K. Evans (b. 1917), a Kentucky native who served as a music editor for the educational publisher, Prentice-Hall. His translation first appeared in The International Book of Christmas Carols (1963), compiled by Walter Ehret. Dr. Evans served as the primary translator for this influential collection. 

Both the text and the tune date back to at least the mid-19th century—the tune found in R. Grosjean’s Airs des noêl lorrain (1862) and the French text in Dom G. Legeay’s Noêls anciens (1875-1876). 

The refrain is one of exuberance. One gets the feel of a street band accompanied by dancers spreading the good news of the birth of the Christ child. The band includes oboe and bagpipes, instruments that definitely can be heard outside. 

The singing translation from the French is accurate for the most part except the last line: Chantons tous son avènement! (Let us all sing of his coming!) 

Stanza one expresses the joy of a long-awaited prophecy fulfilled. Within the constraints of a singing translation, the English version is accurate. The following is a literal translation from the French:

For more than four thousand years
The prophets promised [His coming],
For more than four thousand years
We expected this happy time.


The second stanza captures the spirit of anyone who first sees a newborn baby—a poetic version of, “Isn’t he so cute!”: “This child is charming, beautiful, perfect and sweet” (directly from the French). 

A missing stanza describes how a barn was the house for the child and his bed was made of straw. Then there is the line that captures the essence of the Incarnation: Pour un dieu quel abaissement (For God such a humiliation). 

The last stanza again exposes the paradox that the ruler of the world is a child, a child who will reign over us (Régnez sur nous entièrement). 

The rustic, provincial character of this carol is its strength. The poor child is adored by humble, simple people who express their joy without pretense or guile. Perhaps this carol expresses that childlike innocence that we long for at this season. 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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