In a season where our music is filled with high-spirited festivity, upbeat rhythms, and clichéd images of wreaths and pretty wrapping paper, the haunting melody and archaic imagery of the beloved Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel stand out sharply.
The distinctly biblical feel of the lyrics differs from the more overtly celebratory tone of most carols, and the actual Nativity narrative doesn’t appear in its usual way.
Rather, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel draws from Old Testament imagery of the coming Messiah, creating a hymn that feels anticipatory, prophetic, and timeless. Its incessant cries of “O Come!” echo our own hearts’ desperate cries for a Messiah, making it a beautiful Advent hymn.
Although a classic and well-known hymn, the history of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is surprisingly shrouded in mystery.
Who wrote the lyrics?
It is difficult to attribute the lyrics to any one writer. Originally written in Latin around the 7th or 8th centuries, these verses are actually part of the Divine Office. They are a rendering of the Greater Advent Antiphons, also called the “O” Antiphons based on the initial letter of each. These are sung at the Magnificat during Vespers (Evening Prayer) from December 17th through December 23rd.
These special antiphons are verses extracted from the Old Testament that express our longing for the coming of the Christ.
In fact, the word “come” is used in every O Antiphon.
Once combined with the stunning and easily-recognizable tune, John Mason Neale’s translation of the Latin text turned the verses into a perennial festive favorite.
Who wrote the music?
The haunting melody of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel has its roots as far back as 15th-century France, with a rather uncertain history. It wasn’t until the 1960s that musicologist and nun Mary Berry sourced the 15th-century manuscript that bore the tune’s building blocks, finding it among many others used for processional chants for burials.
So the actual composer of the music for one of the world’s most popular carols is enigmatically anonymous.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a hymn that transforms the atmosphere of every space where it is heard, as well as the hearts of those who prayerfully listen to its beautiful biblical cries for the Savior we all so desperately need. Play it all Advent long as you finish your preparation for the Christmas season.
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