O Come, O Come Emmanuel: Seven Antiphons

Seven Antiphons on Veni Emmanuel (“O Come O Come Emmanuel”), W. Zeitler

“O Come O Come Emmanuel” is a modernized version of the so called “O Antiphons”, a set of pieces traditionally sung at Vespers (evening service) for the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. Each highlights a different aspect of the Christ, and all are taken from the Book of Isaiah:

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom, Isaiah 28:29)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord, Isaiah 11:4-5, 33:22)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse, Isaiah 11:1, 10)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David — that is, the key to the house of David, Isaiah 22:22)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring, Isaiah 9:2)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations, Isaiah 2:4, 9:6)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O God With Us, Isaiah 7:14)

The first letters of the titles taken backwards form a Latin acrostic of “Ero Cras” which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be there” — the whole point of the antiphon series.

(An ‘antiphon’ is a piece characterized by ‘call and response’ — we do ‘call and response’ every Sunday when we work through a text with the reader reading a phrase and the congregation responding with a phrase.)

The exact origin of the “O Antiphons” is not known. The Christian philosopher Boethius (480–524/5, who also wrote a treatise on music theory that was the foundation of music through the Middle Ages) used language which may be a reference to them, suggesting their presence in the sixth century. By the eighth century, they were in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome. The usage of the “O Antiphons” was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common parlance. One may thus conclude that in some fashion the “O Antiphons” have been part of Western liturgical tradition since the very early Church.

The earliest surviving evidence of the hymn’s Latin text is in the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Cologne in 1710. It was also included in the second volume of Thesaurus Hymnologicus, a monumental collection by the German hymnologist Hermann Adalbert Daniel, and thence translated into English by John Mason Neale in 1851.

The familiar tune (Veni Emmanuel) was first linked with this hymn in 1851, when Thomas Helmore published it in the Hymnal Noted, paired with an early revision of Neale’s English translation. The volume listed the tune as being “From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” However, Helmore provided no means by which to verify his source, leading to long-lasting doubts about its attribution. There was even speculation that Helmore might have composed the melody himself.

The mystery was settled in 1966 by British musicologist Sister Mary Berry (also an Augustinian canoness and noted choral conductor), who discovered a 15th-century manuscript containing the melody in the National Library of France, a manuscript consisting of processional chants for burials.

Click here for the mp3 (5:07).

Click here for the pdf.