“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring; –
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”
–Edmund Hamilton Sears, excerpt from “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”
Those who know me know my passion for storytelling and linking of “noteworthy” historic pieces of information, events, people, etc. together. So now that Christmastime is here – I’ve been thinking, “How can I possibly link Christmas and my late husband Charles Novacek’s book, BORDER CROSSINGS: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance?
Well, there’s the obvious – Czech and Slovak Christmas customs, Novacek family and wartime events at Christmas, buying books as holiday gifts, etc. But lesser known are the links to the Detroit couple composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) and his wife Alexandrine Macomb Sheldon Campau Willis (1829-1910).
Who were these people and what is their link to Christmas and Charles’ book?
While Charles was writing BORDER CROSSINGS I started to do research on our residence, a condominium in a nearly 100 year old structure in Detroit’s Cass Corridor aka Midtown. I was part of a group creating an architectural walking tour of the condo’s neighborhood for Detroit’s 300th birthday in 2001. I also needed information to write a history for our building’s centennial in 2005. I wanted to find names and information on previous owners and residents of the property, especially ones that might have been famous.
I browsed through city directories at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library and researched and copied property records at the Wayne County Register of Deeds Office in Greektown. From these sources I transcribed names of owners and residents and then researched most persons named. Information on the Internet was not as readily available as it is now.
Perhaps, the most famous person/link I located was Richard Storrs Willis and his second wife Alexandrine. Interestingly, his last name (Willis) and her first name (Alexandrine) are the names of the cross streets that border the block where our condo is located. So I figured the couple must have been “important.”
Further investigation revealed Mr. Willis was from an influential Boston family and became an important composer and publisher of hymns (both sacred and secular) in nineteenth century America. Perhaps his most famous hymn was the composition in 1850 of the tune “Carol” which is the melody for the popular Christmas carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” with powerful lyrics written in 1849 by Edmund Hamilton Sears.
Throughout its history the carol has been controversial for its focus more on the universal human hope for peace than the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Sears’ message was written with concern of revolution in Europe, the United States-Mexican War, and slavery. During World War I American soldiers sang “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” in the trenches of France during the holiday season.
The song went to war and home with a generation who made it a part of their holiday traditions. Years later U.S. troops took the song back to the front lines of World War II and entertainers such as Bing Crosby sang the carol in Europe at U.S. O. shows. The haunting music and words of “peace on earth” voiced the hopes of homesick soldiers. “Man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring. Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
The angel’s voices continue to be ignored. . . this carol’s words raise the ever-contemporary issue of war and peace and perennial hope and call for peace on earth. . . a message that motivated Charles to write Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance.
Charles mentions “Gaudeamus” in Border Crossings. “Vlasta, three years older than I, attended the school in Rimavská Sobota, the district city. She studied Latin and French in school, and these fascinated me when she practiced them at home. She did not like my interference when I tried to repeat expressions after her, but she couldn’t keep this song from me:
Juvenes dum sumus.
Post jucundam juventutem,
Post molestam senectutem,
Nos habebit humus.
[Let us rejoice therefore
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth,
After a troubling old age,
The earth will have us.]
I could sing it better than she after I dug up the words from her papers when she wasn’t home.”
Additional information on Richard Storrs Willis. . . He studied at Yale University and was president of the schools’ Beethoven Society. After graduating in 1841, he spent the next six years in Germany, studying theory in Frankfurt and Leipzig where he became a member of Felix Mendelssohn’s circle. Returning to America, he supported himself as a music critic and wrote and edited publications including the periodical Musical World from the 1850s into the 1860s. When the Civil War began, Willis moved to Detroit, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Willis, a widower married the widow, Alexandrine Macomb Sheldon Campau, of Detroit in 1861. She had inherited many properties from her late husband John Barnabas Campau, including part of Belle Isle, Detroit’s island park. Alexandrine and Richard also owned the land on which Charles and my residence was built in 1904/1905. While doing my research I located a deed, dated October 1. 1864 from the Willis’s sale of the land which is located in what is now known as the Willis-Selden Historic District.
There are many other historic pieces of information about the Willis’s, but that’s for another blog. . . I will mention, however, that Mr. Willis was on the Detroit Public Library Commission in the 1880s and 1890s and even served as its president!