O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel

This hymn is based upon the seven "O's" or antiphons, which were sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers in the week before Christmas. They are said to have been precented in monastic institutions by the obendientaries, in order of dignity, each entertaining the others with wine. The seven begin as follows:

  • O Sapienta...
  • O Adonai...
  • O Radix Jesse...
  • O Clavis David...
  • O Oriens...
  • O Rex gentium...
  • O Emmanuel...

The initials of the seven, read backwards as an acrostic, spell ero cras ("tomorrow I shall be there"). The practice of singing the Greater Antiphons dates from before the 9th century. The antiphons were never sung together, but one on each of the seven days leading up to Christmas. By the 12th century, five of the verses had been put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain "Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel". The original Latin hymn first appeared in the appendix to Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum (Cologne 1710). Various English translations were made including those by J H Newman (1801-90), J M Neale (1818-66) and T A Lacey (1853-1931). Neale first published it in his Medieval Hymns (1851) - "Draw nigh, draw nigh! Immanuel", but this was significantly altered to the present form in his Hymnal Noted (1852-54).

The English Hymnal has seven verses, but most other hymnals have five verses. Their biblical references are:

  1. Emmanuel (God with us) - Isaiah 7:14, 35:10, 59:20, 61:1, Matthew 1:23, Psalm 137:1-5
  2. Jesse Virgula (the Root of Jesse) - Isaiah 11:1, 11:10
  3. Oriens (the dayspring) - Luke 1:78, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57
  4. Clavis Davidica (the Key of David) - Isaiah 22:22, Revelation 3:7, Matthew 7:14
  5. Adonai (the Lord of Might) - Exodus 3:15

Tune - Veni Emmanuel

The tune Veni Emmanuel is said to be "from a French Missal in the National Library of Portugal, Lisbon". This is probably an error since it has not been found in any of the Lisbon manuscripts. However, it does occur in a 15th century Processional which had belonged to French Franciscan nuns, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. The present form dates from Thomas Helmore's The Hymnal Noted part 2, 1856. Helmore was a pioneer of the revival of Gregorian Tones in Anglican services.

The tune appears in two forms in modern hymnals. The Hymns Ancient and Modern series present it in the style of a 19th century hymn tune with "block" harmonies. In contrast, the English Hymnal series present an accompaniment more appropriate to singing in a lighter plainsong style.

Nigel Day

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 8th December 1997