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Hymn of the Week: ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 12/16/17

This is probably the definitive and most familiar hymn of Advent—although, in my parish, we don’t begin singing it until this week, to coincide with the arrival of the “O Antiphons.”

Wikipedia notes:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a Christian hymn for Advent and Christmas. It is a translation of a Latin hymn, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, itself a metrical paraphrase of the O Antiphons, a series of plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas. The 1861 translation from Hymns Ancient and Modern is the most prominent by far in the English-speaking world, but other English translations also exist. Translations into other modern languages (particularly German) are also in widespread use. The words and the music of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” developed separately. The Latin text is first documented in Germany in 1710, whereas the tune most familiar in the English-speaking world has its origins in 15th-century France. The pre-history of the text stretches back to the origins of the O Antiphons themselves, which were in existence by, at the latest, the eighth century. However, to speak meaningfully of the text of the hymn per se, they would need to be paraphrased in strophic, metrical form. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that efforts along those lines could have been made quite early; we know, for instance, that they were paraphrased extensively by the English poet Cynewulf in a poem written before the year 800. However, despite popular imagination of an early origin for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the hymn’s history is first substantiated only much later. The earliest surviving evidence of the hymn’s text is in the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, which was published in Cologne in 1710. That hymnal was a major force in the history of German church music: first assembled by Jesuit hymnographer Johannes Heringsdorf in 1610 and receiving numerous revised editions through 1868, it achieved enormous impact due to its use in Jesuit schools. The text of the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum version is essentially expanded, rather than altered, over the subsequent centuries. That version exhibits all of the hymn’s characteristic qualities: it is strophic and metrical (in the 88.88.88.88 hymn meter), and the order is altered so that the last of the O Antiphons (the titular “Veni Emmanuel”) becomes the first verse of the hymn. Each stanza consists of a four-line verse, which adapts one of the antiphons, and a new two-line refrain (“Gaude, gaude! Emmanuel \ nascetur pro te, Israel,” i.e., “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel”), which provides an explicitly Advent-oriented response to the petition of the verse. This first version of the hymn includes five verses, corresponding to five of the seven standard O Antiphons, in the following order:
  1. “Veni, veni Emmanuel!” = “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
  2. “Veni, O Jesse Virgula” = “O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse”
  3. “Veni, veni, O Oriens” = “O come, Thou Dayspring, from on High”
  4. “Veni, clavis Davidica” = “O come, Thou Key of David, come”
  5. “Veni, veni, Adonai” = “O come, Adonai, Lord of might”

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