Beloved Christmas carols: O come, o come Emmanuel

“O come, o come Emmanuel” is among the oldest of hymns still known, both in terms of the words and the tune. Like many old Gregorian chants, it lay forgotten for centuries before its rediscovery. Thomas Helmore published the tune in 1856 in Part II of The Hymnal Noted. He said it was found in a French missal in the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon, but no one since has found it there.

The French National Library in Paris has a fifteenth-century processional of Franciscan nuns with the identical tune, an added second voice, and words from the funeral antiphon “Libera me, Domine.” That means neither that the chant melody is from the fifteenth century nor that its original text was “Libera me, Domine.”

The Latin text of “O come, o come Emmanuel” (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”) probably originated in the twelfth century as part of one of the seven great antiphons sung at Vespers along with the Magnificat during Advent.Those seven antiphons address Jesus as Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. The first letter of each (in Latin) in reverse order yields the phrase ero cras, which means “tomorrow I come.” The original melody could even be the same one used for “Libera me, Domine” in the fifteenth century.

The text takes the viewpoint of ancient Jews, crying out to God to come and ransom them from the captivity that resulted from their sin. They can pray in faith, secure in the knowledge that the same prophecies that told of their captivity also told of God’s plan to redeem them. We, too, suffering from our own sins, can repeat their cry in the same assurance of faith.

John Mason Neale provided the English translation. One of the most prolific hymn writers of nineteenth-century England, he had no equal as a translator of ancient and medieval Latin texts. His translation of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” changes the order of the verses. Originally, it began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel;” Fortunately it has since become the more singable  “O come, o come Emmanuel.” Among his original poems, Neale wrote “Good King Wenceslas” on the basis of an old Bohemian story, which he loved so much he didn’t care if it was history or legend.


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