O Come, O Come Emmanuel, A French Processionale, and John Mason Neale

December 19, 2012 Comments Off on O Come, O Come Emmanuel, A French Processionale, and John Mason Neale

On the 4th Sunday of Advent we sing one of the most beloved hymns of the Advent season, “O come, O come Emmanuel”. For me personally the text of this hymn is a summation of the observance and spirit of preparation and anticipation that is Advent, and the requisite final hymn for any annual observance of the season. It was even sung in my protestant parish when I was young, though mysteriously on Advent I. Even though I have rejected nearly all of the theology of that denomination, they did have good taste in music. Most, if not all of us, are familiar with the hymn text and can hum the familiar tune, but the origins of both the text and melody provide in interesting glimpse into our collective liturgical past. As we prepare for the Solemn Feast of the Nativity, let’s take a moment and reflect on the nearly 800 years of history that passed, while each year the texts were sung with quiet contemplation. Those familiar lines and tune which, like so many aspects of our familiar hymns, rituals, liturgies and other components of Anglican worship, meet where the centuries-old forms of worship in the pre-Reformation church intersect with the reformed Catholicism of the Oxford Movement with its interest in England’s Medieval liturgical and musical heritage, and our own 21-century expression of traditional worship.

Each verse of the Latin processional chant Veni, veni Emmanuel is a metric paraphrase of what are known as the “O” Antiphons, for the simple reason that they begin: O radix Jesse, O sapientia etc. The symbolism of each of the antiphons is beautifully explained by Sean Scheller in his contribution to the Advent blog, using the images found on the front of our gorgeous Advent cope made some years ago by the venerable Graham French.  In the Catholic West the “O” Antiphons frame the Magnificat sung or recited at Vespers in the Roman Catholic or Evensong in the Anglican traditions during the octave, or eight days, prior to the Nativity. Each one is one of the names which are given to the Messiah, and also reference the prophecies of Isaiah. To make it even more interesting, the first letter of each after the “O” creates a reverse acrostic so that beginning with the last antiphon and working backward to the beginning – even more symbolism – it spells in Latin: Ero Cras: Tomorrow I come. Oddly, considering their widespread usage, the texts were not set chorally in a complete set until the 17th –century by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In modern times the texts have received more attention by composers, Bob Chilcott, Arvo Pärt and Peter Hallock are among the contemporary composers who have set them.

The exact origin of the O Antiphon texts remains a mystery, but we do know of a few threads. The Roman Philosopher Boethius alludes to them as early as the 6th century, and they were in use in Roman liturgies within the next two centuries.  The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf (c.800) based four sections of his poem entitled Christ on the antiphons O Rex gentium, O Clavis David, O Oriens and O Emmanuel suggesting more than a passing familiarly. The metical version which is the basis for our version of five of the seven antiphons was in use in the 13th –century. They are less literal, abandoning the more gloomy aspects of the original texts replacing them with the more confident “Gaude, gaude Emmanuel” refrain as you can see in the text and translation below. Those of you who know the hymn tune by heart will be immediately struck by how easily the Latin words fit with the familiar melody.


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An early version of the English hymn as we know it was included in The Hymnal Noted – Part II in 1852. The text was translated by the great John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a high-churchman whose invaluable work translating medieval hymn texts into English for modern usage is one of the largest single contributions to traditional hymnody in use in the church today. As a vocal advocate of the Oxford movement, Neale had to endure a good deal of opposition, including a fourteen years’ inhibition by his bishop. He translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms. He held to the belief that the truth was found in the mediaeval and orthodox theologies of the church and popular hymn composers such as Isaac Watts composed erroneous theological texts, and was an offence against good taste. Neale was little appreciated in his time, and received is Doctor of Divinity not in England but at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut in 1860. He is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. The English Hymnal (1906) contains 63 translated hymns and six original hymns by Neale. His translations include a number of St. Luke’s favorites, all found in the Hymnal 1982 among them: All Glory, Laud, and Honor, Of the Father’s Heart Begotten, Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle, and To Thee Before the Close of Day.

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The Veni, veni Emmanuel tune was in use by the 13th century, found alternately in a manuscript in Portugal (now missing) and in a book of French processional chants. Although it its exact date of composition is unclear, the close relationship of text to melody suggests that either the tune was composed to fit the meter of the text, or they were composed together. The French Processionale book has the familiar hymn tune on a left-hand folio, with a complementary discantus part on the opposite folio. A lovely version of the hymn from the Processionale is found in the New Oxford Book of Carols (Andrew Parrott and Hugh Keyte, editors) and on the Taverner Choir’s Carol Album easily found on iTunes or Spotify. Take a moment to listen to the original version of the hymn, pause and reflect on the fact that like us, many who have come before have felt a similar attachment and sense of anticipation, preparation and awe in what are the last few days of the Advent before the coming each year of our Lord Jesus.

Click the link to hear the Tavner Consort perform Veni, Veni Emmanuel: Veni, Veni Emmanuel – Taverner Consort

– John Bradley

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