During the season of Advent, we prepare for the coming of Christ, incarnated as a human baby. Advent is a penitential season, filled with prayer and subdued liturgy and music. One of the best loved Advent hymns is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Its text connects the Old Testament prophesy of the Messiah as a descendant of King David with the incarnation of the Christ child. The tune to which the hymn is sung has a mystical and haunting feel that is perfect for the Advent season. But, did you know that O Come, O Come, Emmanuel didn’t begin as a hymn at all? And did you know that the words of this hymn are not always sung to the tune that we normally associate with it? In this brief article, we will look at the fascinating history behind this beautiful hymn.
It is important to understand that the hymns we sing in church have two distinct parts which come from separate places. One part is the hymn text—the words we sing. The other part is the tune to which we sing the words. With many familiar hymns we become so accustomed to the words and tune going together that we forget that the text and tune can originate from very different sources and times in history. That is the case with O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
The English words that we sing are a translation from a Latin text—Veni, veni Emmanuel. This Latin text did not start out as a congregational hymn. It originated as a series of short, chanted passages that were added onto the Magnificat, which is sung as part of the liturgy of the Vespers service. The words were adapted from the O Antiphon chants. These date back to the 9th Century. During the last week of Advent, in the ancient Church, the O Antiphons would be chanted as a short addition to the Magnificat. There are seven O Antiphons. One would be added each day to the Magnificat during the last week of Advent so that by Christmas Eve all would be sung as part of the liturgy. These would not have been sung by ordinary lay Christians during the Sunday Mass, but instead by monks, because the Office of Vespers would have been celebrated within monasteries. In the Lutheran Service Book (LSB), English translations of the seven O Antiphons are shown on the page facing hymn number 357, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Today O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is intended to be sung on the fourth Sunday in Advent (not earlier in the Advent season) as a carry-over of how the O Antiphons were used during the last week of Advent in the ancient Church.
How then did the text make its way into the congregational hymn we now know as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel? In the early 19th Century (early 1800s) the Anglican church (the Church of England) was in decline. The theology of the church had been watered down by secular influences, and the liturgy and general quality of the worship experience suffered as a result. A group of theologians from Oxford University set about to revitalize the Anglican church in an effort known as the Oxford Movement. The Oxford Movement helped bring about a return to a traditional catholic (Christian) liturgy and elevated the quality of music and hymns sung during the service. A major force behind improving the hymns sung in the Anglican church at this time was John Mason Neale. Neale researched hymns that had been sung in the past, especially ancient Latin hymns from pre-Reformation times, with the intent to translate them into English and reintroduce them to the Anglican congregations. During his research, Neale learned of the existence of a then out-of-print Roman Catholic hymnal—the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum—first published in 1610 in Cologne, Germany. It was in this hymnal that the Latin text of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel first appeared in hymn form. Scholars believe that the Latin hymn text may go back further to the 12th century, but no written hymnals survive earlier than the 1610 edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum. Somewhere between the 9th Century and the 12th Century, the text ceased being sung as part of the Magnificat and became a stand-alone hymn. Neale translated the Latin text into English and the text that we know today appeared in the English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern, in 1861. It has since found its way into many hymnals for many Christian denominations.
The familiar tune to which we sing the text can be traced to a 15th Century French missal found in the city library of Lisbon, Portugal. (A missal is another term for a hymnal or prayer book.) The tune was a chant originally sung during funeral processions as the deceased person was being carried from the funeral Mass to the burial site. It has since become so closely associated with the text of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that this tune is now called Veni Immanuel. Its original name is not known. However, since the text has a regular meter (rhythm), it can also be sung to other tunes that have the same meter. In some Lutheran denominations, the text is sung to a tune called St. Petersburg, written by the composer Dmitry Bortniansky. I have included a link to a recording of the tune St. Petersburg: https://hymnary.org/media/fetch/198983 If you want to try a fun experiment, play the tune in the link and try to sing the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel from LSB to this different tune. While the words all fit with the notes, if you are like me, you will have a difficult time singing it because you are so used to singing the hymn to the more familiar tune Veni Immanuel. Somehow the mood of the St. Petersburg tune seems a little too upbeat to fit with this penitential season of Advent!
I hope you have enjoyed this brief look at the history of this most famous and beloved of Advent hymns. As we celebrate other seasons of the Church year, look for additional articles on the backgrounds of some of our other best loved hymns.
Deborah Jackman, MCM
St. John Lutheran Church
1. Discipleship Ministries, the United Methodist Church, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-come-o-come-emmanuel retrieved on 12/3/2020.
2. Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/search?qu=O+come+O+come+emmanuel , retrieved on 12/4/2020.
3. Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns--2 Volume Set, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 2019.