O come, O come, Emmanuel

Hymn #2
Text: Traditional antiphons
Music: 15th-century plainsong,
adapted by Thomas Helmore (1811-1890)

This is one of the most familiar of our Advent hymns. In its earliest form may date back to a community of fifth-century Jewish Christians. The first translation in English appeared in John Mason Neale’s The Hymnal Noted (1851). In Neale’s version, the first verse began with the words, “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.”

Our Hymnal includes seven verses, each of which addresses the Messiah with a different Biblical name: Immanuel, Wisdom, Lord of Might, Branch of Jesse, Key of David, Morning Star, and King of Nations. Before these seven verses became a single hymn — perhaps as early as the 12th or 13th century — they were part of Advent liturgies in the week preceding Christmas. One of the verses was sung on each night beginning on December 17th, through the 23rd. They were chanted in evening Vespers services, just before the singing of the virgin Mary’s own song of Messianic anticipation, the Magnificat, and repeated again after the Magnificat was complete. This liturgical placement of a short text before and after a long one is called an antiphon, and because each of the texts began with the interjection “O”, the set of seven texts came to be known as the O antiphons.

The original order is a bit different than the order of verses that appears in the hymn we sing today. Immanuel is, in the traditional structure, the name invoked on the last of these seven nights. Here is the traditional order:

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)


The tune we sing, VENI IMMANUEL, is based on a chant melody used in a Requiem Mass contained in a fifteenth-century French manuscript. That chant was adapted by an Anglican priest and church musician named Thomas Helmore, who presented it in his 1854 publication of The Hymnal Noted. Helmore’s collaborator on that hymnal was a fellow priest and prolific translator John Mason Neale, who had first introduced the hymn to English-language liturgies (see above).

Here is a traditional (and grand) rendition of this hymn by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Here is a setting of this hymn, in the original Latin, arranged by Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), sung by L’Accroche-Choeur, Ensemble vocal Fribourg.