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Hymn History: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Happy Advent season! The time of year to look forward to the coming of Christ's coming into the world (or at least the celebration of it). Yes, despite what the department store and radios would have you believe, Jesus isn't in the cradle yet. It really isn't Christmas season yet. According to the church calendar, the Christmas season starts on Christmas and lasts until Epiphany (which, by the way, is where the 12 Days of Christmas comes from).

This is why many of the traditional carols that we hear over the airwaves aren’t performed in church services before Christmas. Advent is all about the anticipation for Christ’s coming, while Christmas carols tend to be about Christ’s arrival.

However, there is one advent piece that gets mixed in with all the Christmas carols: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. It is, perhaps, the most popular advent song. Most people have heard the above arrangement specifically and is included on Mannheim Steamroller's "A Fresh Aire Christmas" album.

An interesting note about this particular arrangement, when the composer of Mannheim Steamroller, Chip Davis, went to arrange this piece, he really felt that the tune leant itself to the ancient Gregorian Chants, performed by monks in 9th and 10th centuries. Imagine his surprise when he looked it up and saw that's where it came from!

Though, that isn’t entirely correct. The words and tune that we are familiar with weren’t even paired together until 1851. The history of this hymn is a rather long one and the words and the music took entirely different paths.

The earliest form of this song dates back to the 8th or 9th centuries as part of the "O Antiphons"; translated to “The Great O’s”, so called simply because each one starts with O. These were a series of songs that would be sung during Roman Catholic vespers services the seven days leading to Christmas Eve, where the eighth antiphon, "O Virgo virginum” (O Virgin of virgins) would be performed along with Mary’s Magnificat.

The "O Antiphons" each started as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom)

O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)

O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)

O Clavis David (key of David)

O Oriens (dayspring)

O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)

O Emmanuel

These seven different pieces were eventually shortened and made into verses in one song, and you can find allusions to these different antiphons in versions of the hymn today. The first known instance of this appeared in a French hymnal in 1710, still in its Latin text. That text was eventually seen by John Mason Neale, who created and published the first English translations of the hymn in 1851. Here's one of his own revised translations in the 1861 version of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

That covers the history of the text! But how did this tune get paired with these words? Neale's translation was first paired with the tune by Thomas Helmore when he published Hymnal Noted in 1851, with the tune credited as "From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon." For a long time, scholars could not find this French Missal, but in 1966 Dr. Mary Berry discovered a 15th century manuscript in the French National Library that contained this tune. She admits, however, it’s impossible to know if this was the 'French Missal' Helmore referenced, and that there might exist an even earlier version of the melody. So, the composer of this tune remains anonymous.

Despite not knowing the true origin of this tune, Helmore's choice to pair it with Neale's words was a good one. The melody eventually became known as "Veni Emmanuel" due to how the combination permeated the culture and withstood the test of time. As you can see from the image above, Neale was already using this melody with his revised translation a mere ten years later. This version of the hymnal went on to achieve great commercial success and was used in nearly three quarters of the churches in England, thus cementing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"'s place in the public consciousness that has endured to this day.

So, as you undoubtedly hear this song in the air this Advent season, remember how the original words were meant to be in anticipation of Christmas. Songs to express the hope that Christ's coming into this world gives us.


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