During the four weeks of Advent, Sister Anne Flanagan of the Daughters of St. Paul choir will share some of the background of favorite Advent hymns.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel!
Advent begins this Sunday, and that means a very good chance of singing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel this weekend.
The words of this best-known of Advent hymns are based on a series of short texts from Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours (“Breviary”) for the week before Christmas. The texts (antiphons) call upon Jesus in images drawn from the Bible, mostly from the book of the prophet Isaiah. They are called “O” antiphons, since they all begin with that invocation: “O Emmanuel”; “O Root of Jesse”; “O Rising Sun”; O Key of David” etc. These liturgical antiphons go back over a thousand years; it took another several hundred years before a creative writer set the antiphons in verse form (in Latin, of course), adopting iambic tetrameter for every line. Each of the four lines has eight syllables alternately unstressed and stressed. That same rhythm characterizes the English translation we usually sing. (Brilliant, right?)
The melody itself (named Veni Emmanuel) is not quite as ancient as the antiphons. In fact, the melody we unfailingly associate with Advent was used in the 1400's as a processional chant for funerals. Not only that: since the lyrics (in both Latin and English) fit a standard hymn meter (that famous iambic tetrameter), the verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel (without the refrain) will fit any song in the so-called “long meter,” including All Creatures of Our God and King, the Good Friday processional Forth Comes the Standard of the King (Vexilla Regis) and even another Advent hymn, Creator of the Stars of Night (which we will look at later).
No one really knows when the funeral chant melody was first united with the Advent text, but the two were published together (with the text in English translation by John Mason Neale) for the first time only in 1851, thanks to the back-to-tradition interest of members of the Oxford Movement. By the end of the 19th century, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (firmly wedded to the funeral chant melody) was in the hymnal used by 75% of English churches. Today, of course, it would be a real challenge to find a church hymnal that did not include O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Listen to a Dominican friar chant the O Antiphons in Latin according to the usage in the Order of Preachers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXYVDjj0RVg
Sister Anne Flanagan is a singer with the Daughters of St Paul Choir.