Many people mistakenly assume that this Christmas classic has been around for years and is of European origin. But it was written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a powerful plea for peace by a man who had experienced the horrors of war.
The song's message of peace is just as needed today as it was then.
Search for good and light
A brilliant musical career seemed assured for the Frenchman Noel Regney. He studied at the Strasbourg Conservatory and at the National Conservatory of Paris.
Then came World War II, when France was ruled by Hitler's German troops. Much against Regney's wishes, he was drafted into the German army.
He hated the Nazis occupying the country where he was born. Regney became a member of the French resistance while still in the German army. His duties required him to remain in German uniform. He gathered information and, whenever possible, warned French resistance fighters of attacks the Germans were planning against them.
One mission continued to pursue Noel Regney: he was tasked with leading a group of German soldiers into a trap where French fighters could catch them in the crossfire.
Although Regney was shot that day, he survived. The Frenchman suffered only minor injuries. But the memory of enemy soldiers falling to the ground, most of them dead, was burned into Noel Regney's mind.
He never publicly commented on what happened on that horrific day. It has been said that he was wounded on purpose by the French to protect him from the Germans, believing that his wound would indicate he was unaware of the trap for the enemy.
Not long after this encounter, Regney left the German army and went underground with the French for the remainder of the war. "It was only then that I felt free," he once remarked.
After the war he worked for several years as music director for Radio France's Indochinese service and as music director for the Lido, a popular nightclub in Paris.
In 1952 Noel Regney moved to Manhattan. He composed music for many early TV shows and commercial jingles, and wrote serious musical compositions. In 1971 Regney composed "Slovenly Peter", a concert suite based on an old German folk tale. Four years later he completed a five-part cantata entitled I believe in life. He also composed the 1963 hit "Dominique" (sung by Soeur Sourire, aka "The Singing Nun").
In the late 1950s, Noel Regney married pianist Gloria Shayne after only knowing her a few weeks. Her daughter, Gabrielle Regney, says of her mother: “She is an exceptional pianist and songwriter with perfect pitch. ”
Gloria has written many popular songs that have been recorded by well-known singers, including "Goodbye Cruel World" (James Darren's recording reached #3 on the Billboard chart) and "The Men in My Little Girl's Life" (recorded by Mike Douglas). She collaborated with Jack Keller on Almost There (recorded by Andy Williams).
“My mother's work is more trendy; my father's is more classic and avant-garde,” says Gabrielle. When her parents worked together, she says, "Usually my mom would write the lyrics and my dad would compose the music. But they did the opposite when they said, "Are you hearing what I'm hearing? ”
Of all his works, this simple Christmas carol is the one that will continue to be cherished. This is how it came about:
In October 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a crisis centered on the missiles that the Russians had stationed in Cuba. The United States threatened military action if the missiles were not removed. The world trembled and prayed as these two nuclear powers went head-to-head.
When Noel Regney walked the streets of New York in October of that year, there was a sense of desperation in the air. Nobody smiled. Regney had endured the horrors of war. He knew the fear and terror of being close to death. The secure life he had built for himself in America was about to end.
Christmas, which should have been a time of peace and goodwill, was approaching. Noel Regney was asked by a music producer to write a Christmas carol.
"I thought I would never write a Christmas carol," he recalls. “Christmas has become so commercial. But that was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the studio the producer listened to the radio to see if we had been wiped out.
“On the way home, I saw two mothers with their babies in prams. The little angels looked at each other and smiled. My mood was suddenly extraordinary. ”
One look at those babies filled Noel Regney's heart with poetry. The little ones reminded him of newborn lambs. This is how the song begins: "The night wind spoke to the little lamb". ”
As soon as Noel got home, he wrote down the lyrics. So he asked Gloria to write music to his words. "As my mother walked down the street in New York, she heard trumpets playing the tune in her head," explains Gabrielle Regney.
"Noel wrote a beautiful song," Gloria later said, "and I wrote the song. We couldn't sing it in full; it tore us apart We cry. Our little song tore us apart. You must be aware that nuclear war was looming at the time. ”
Though the marriage didn't last, her parents remained close friends, Gabrielle says.
Today Gloria Shayne Baker is sick. Noel Regney died on Christmas Eve 2002 at the age of 80. He is survived by his second wife Susan, three children (Paul, Gabrielle and Matthieu) and a stepdaughter (Patricia). At his funeral service, celebrated at St. Mary's Church in Ridgefield, New York: “Do you hear what I hear? " it has been done.
pray for peace
There have been over 100 versions of Do You Hear What I Hear?, including early recordings by Perry Como and the Harry Simeone Chorale. Gladys Knight and the Pips, Destiny's Child and Vanessa Williams are among the artists who have made more recent recordings. Noel Regney's favorite was a recording of Robert Goulet almost shouting, "Pray for peace, people everywhere. ”
But it was Bing Crosby's 1963 recording that brought Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne's peace song to the nation's attention. Back then, Crosby's recordings were often instant hits; Her version has sold over a million copies.
"Can You Hear What I Hear?" carried a beautiful message close to people in all walks of life. It became a popular Christmas carol, "a song high above the tree, with a voice as big as the sea." But the message of peace was lost in many people.
"I'm amazed that people can think they know the song and not know it's a prayer for peace," Noel Regney once told an interviewer. "But we're so bombarded by noise and our attention spans are so short. ”
Let us hope and pray that this song of peace, as it is sung in churches around the world during the Christmas season, will remind us that “The boy, the boy who sleeps at night” came to “bring goodness and light unto us bring. ”