O Come Emmanuel: An introduction to the Great Antiphons

You wouldn’t know from the sights and sounds, but it’s not actually the Christmas season. That season starts on December 25th. This is advent. With that in mind, if you were to think of an Advent hymn, what would you think of? I think most English speaking Christians would bring to mind ‘O come o come Emanuel’.

It’s one of my favorite hymns. It exists in both English and Latin, and it’s music is medieval…, yet it only dates to the 19th century. How that can be?

The hymn was composed and published by a 19th century Anglican, John Mason Neale. To create the hymn, he took a Latin text from one source, set it to a melody from another, and produced an English translation.

According to Wiki, the oldest record of the Latin text comes from the 1710 Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Cologne, Germany.

This Latin text is a poetical rewriting of the Great Antiphons. The “Great” or “O” Antiphons are a series of antiphons, one of which is sung or said on each of the last seven days of advent (December 17-21st ) at vespers.

As I have mentioned here in the past, I am involved in sacred music. It is my plan, but not promise, to produce videos of these antiphons and publish them here on the appropriate days.

The hymn was published with music, “from a French Missal”. However, no one was able to find the source. It was rumored that the claim to the music being medieval was a fabrication. Then in 1966, nun and musicologist, Mary Berry found it. The original music was in two part harmony and set with a funeral text. This is a penitential season, when we are waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. His second as well as his first. In light of this awareness of Christ coming, and he will come again as judge, it seems fitting to me that a funeral text is the source of the music.


Here is a rendition of this hymn sung with the original harmony


And if you are a musician in need of that harmony, it can be found here http://www.brandt.id.au/music/hymnbook/veni.pdf and here https://liberreader.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/veni-veni-emmanuel.pdf


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