The Great Antiphons
Veni, veni, Emmanuel
O heavenly wisdom, hear our cry
Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel
O come, O come, Emmanuel
O come, Immanuel, our King
O come, thou wisdom whose decree
with VENI EMMANUEL
The famous Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” has a rich history in the Latin liturgy and in multiple English paraphrases. The root of the text is in a series of chants known as the Great Antiphons (or the O Antiphons), with each chant containing a different name for Christ: Sapientia (Wisdom, Prov. 8:22ff.), Adonai (Lord, Ex. 20:1ff.), Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse, Is. 11:1), Clavis David (Key of David, Rev. 3:7), Oriens (Dayspring, Lk. 1:78), Rex Gentium (King of Nations, Hag. 2:7), and Emmanuel (God with Us, Is. 7:14). These seven chants are intended to be sung in anticipation of Christ’s birth on the seven evenings preceding Christmas Eve.
I. Latin Origins
The seven Great Antiphons probably date from the 8th century. The oldest known manuscript to contain this complete series of Latin texts is the Liber Responsalis of St. Gregory, contained within the Antiphonaire dit de Compiègne held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 17436 (9th century | online | Fig. 1), without music (neumes). The antiphons appear on folio 36 in the traditional order, plus two additional antiphons, “O virgo virginum” (O virgin of virgins) and “Orietur sicut sol Salvator mundi” (The Savior of the world will rise like the sun). The section is headed “Antiphonae majores in Evangelio” (The Great Antiphons on the Gospel).
For a transcription of the Latin text from MS Latin 17436, see J.P. Migne, Patrologiæ Cursus Completus, Series Latina, vol. 78, pp. 732-733 (HathiTrust).
II. Old English Adaptation and Latin Variants
The Great Antiphons were adapted into English by one of the earliest known English poets, Cynewulf (9th century), around the same time as the Latin MS above. These antiphons form the basis of Cynewulf’s poem Christ I, which survives in only one known manuscript, the Exeter Book, held at the Exeter Cathedral, MS 3501. Unfortunately, the first eight pages of the manuscript have been lost, so the Christ poem begins in the middle of the antiphon sequence, starting with O Rex Gentium. The relationship between the Latin and the Old English poem is not entirely clear to the untrained eye, but one scholar, Edward Burgert, offered this outline of the text in his study The Dependence of Part I of Cynewulf's Christ Upon the Antiphonary (Washington, D.C., 1921 | Google Books), p. 51:
Lost: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse
Lines 000-017: O Rex gentium
Lines 018-049: O Clavis David
Lines 050-070: O Hierusalem
Lines 071-103: O Virgo virginum
Lines 104-129: O Oriens
Lines 130-163: O Emmanuel
Lines 164-213: Matthew 1:18-21
Lines 214-274: O Rex Pacifice
Lines 275-347: O mundi Domina
Lines 348-377: Poet’s own O: Christmas preface
Lines 378-415: Trinity Antiphons, Doxology
Lines 416-439: O admirabile commercium
Notice in this list the addition of several antiphons outside of the usual seven: O Hierusalem, O Virgo virginum, O Rex Pacifice, and O mundi Domina. Burgert argued that Cynewulf must have had access to a manuscript with these eleven antiphons, and as an example, he pointed to the existence of this whole series in a manuscript known as the Antiphonary of Hartker of the late 10th century (ca. 990-1000), which is held at the Stiftsbibliothek, St. Gallen, Switzerland, Codex 390 (website), especially pp. 40-41 (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. St. Gallen Codex 390 (ca. 990-1000 A.D.), pp. 40-41.
This manuscript includes a series of twelve antiphons, including the eleven alluded to in Cynewulf, plus “O Gabriel.” The first seven are the traditional Great Antiphons, the rest following after. Above the text is an early system of unlined chant notation, intended only to convey the melodic shape, the exact form of which would have been learned aurally.
For a full a transcription of the Old English text of Cynewulf’s Christ I and a translation by Benjamin Thorpe, see Codex Exoniensis (London: Society of Antiquaries, 1842 | Archive.org), or for another English translation, see Charles Huntington Whitman, The Christ of Cynewulf (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1900 | Google Books).
III. Latin Reforms & The Acrostic
In the period known as the Counter-Reformation, mid-to-late 16th century, many aspects of the Latin liturgy were revised and standardized under Pope Pius V, leading to a longstanding universal practice sometimes known as the Tridentine rite. This included the elimination of any variants beyond the first seven Great Antiphons.
Some observers have noted that in these seven texts, the initial letter of each name for Christ spells S-A-R-C-O-R-E, which in reverse reads ero cras (I will be tomorrow) a clever acrostic device with a particular meaning leading up Christmas Eve that gets lost in English translation. Scholars have debated wether this acrostic device was intentional or incidental. The argument in favor of intent includes the common practice of medieval writers to embed acrostic devices in poetic writing. Cynewulf, for example, is known for ending his poems with an acrostic on the letters in his name. The argument against points to the different numbers of antiphons included in the series (the manuscripts shown in Figs. 1-2 include 8 to 12 antiphons), and sometimes a different order to the series, or the problem, as Burgert put it, “no ecclesiastical writer of that age [the early Middle Ages] is known to have pointed out the acrostic in question” (p. 63).
The official Roman version of the Great Antiphons from the Tridentine rite (1570–1962) is shown below as in Liber Usualis (Fig. 3). This service book indicates that these antiphons should be followed by the Magnificat. Each chant tune follows the same general melodic formula, though none are identical. Each also ends with the formula e-u-o-u-a-e (shorthand for seculorum amen).
Fig. 3. Liber Usualis (NY: Desclee, 1961).
IV. Latin Poetic Adaptation
The Great Antiphons were adapted into a rhyming version and published in the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum (Cologne, 1710 | Fig. 4) in five stanzas. This poetic interpretation omitted two of the series, Sapientia and Rex Gentium, thus neglecting the acrostic device and the series as a whole, but it added the refrain, “Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel, est natus pro te, Israel.” Note also that this rhyming version flipped the order of the antiphons and began with Emmanuel, a practice that would be imitated later in English translations.
Fig. 4. Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum (Cologne, 1710).
To complete the text, two additional metrical stanzas (Sapientia, Rex gentium) appeared as early as 1874 in Joseph Mohr’s Cäcilia and repeated in his Cantiones Sacrae (London, 1878 | Fig. 5), arranged in the standard liturgical order, with an unattributed tune. The refrain is different, ending with “Mox veniet Emmanuel.”
Fig. 5. Joseph Mohr, Cantiones Sacrae (NY: Frederick Pustet, 1878).
V. English Translation (Literal)
A literal English translation credited to A.J. Beresford Hope appeared in Sacred Hymns and Anthems (Leeds: G. Crawshaw, 1846), pp. 10-11 (Google Books). Hope was a colleague of J.M. Neale and co-founder of the Ecclesiological Society. Hope’s translation included all seven standard Great Antiphons, dated for Dec. 17-23. This translation was adopted, with minor revisions, into the Hymnal Noted, Part II (words only, 1855; with the chant tunes, 1856 | Fig. 6) adding an eighth antiphon, a translation from O virgo virginum, which reflects the chant tradition from the Salisbury (Sarum) rite. See also Accompanying Harmonies to the Hymnal Noted, Parts I & II (1858), pp. 348-354: PDF
Fig. 6. Hymnal Noted, Parts I & II (London: Novello, 1856).
The chant melodies in the above example, supplied by the music editor, Thomas Helmore (1811–1890), were drawn from an antiphonary in use at Salisbury. For this, he would have consulted the Antphonale ad usum ecclesiae Sarum (London, 1519 | Fig. 7), or one like it; very few survive. In the example shown below, the series of antiphons includes nine, the extra two being O virgo virginum, such as what appeared in the Hymnal Noted, and the lesser-known O Thoma didime (“O apostle Thomas”). Their presence in this service book pre-dates the establishment of the Church of England and the Catholic reforms of Pope Pius V. The Latin melodies correspond closely to the versions presented in the Hymnal Noted but vary as the syllabic requirements for the English translation are not exactly the same.
Fig. 7. Antphonale ad usum ecclesiae Sarum (London, 1519), fols. 45v-47r.
VI. English Translations (Poetic): Two Versions by J.M. Neale
John Mason Neale created two different versions of these antiphons in English. The first is a set of seven hymns, each based on one of the antiphons, and each elaborating on the theme expressed by the antiphon. These were included in the third series of his Hymns for Children (1846 | 3rd ed. shown in Fig. 8). Each hymn is a prayer ending with an expression of anticipation appropriate for the nearness of Christmas, and a doxology where the second person in the Trinity is expressed by the name given in the antiphon.
Fig. 8. John Mason Neale, Hymns for Children, Third Series, 3rd ed. (London: Joseph Masters, 1867).
In addition to his free interpretation of the Great Antiphons for his Hymns for Children, J.M. Neale prepared an English translation of the metrical Latin versions, the ones that had appeared in 1710 (see Fig. 4 above). Neale used the edition of these Latin poems as they had appeared in Herm Adelbert Daniel’s Thesaurus Hymnologicus, vol. 2 (Leipzig, 1844), p. 336 (Archive.org). Both the original 1710 version and Daniel’s edition only contain five stanzas; Neale followed suit. His translation first appeared in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (London: Joseph Masters, 1851 | Fig. 9). Notice how his original version began “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,” and the refrain ended “Is born for thee, O Israel!”
Fig. 9. Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (London: Joseph Masters, 1851).
Neale revised his translation for the Hymnal Noted, first in Part II of the words-only edition (1855), then the melody edition (1856). This version includes, for example, the familar change in the second line, “and ransom captive Israel,” and an awkward (though more accurate) change in the refrain, “shall be born for thee, O Israel.” See also Accompanying Harmonies to the Hymnal Noted, Parts I & II (1858), p. 213: PDF
Fig. 10. Hymnal Noted, Parts I & II (London: Novello, 1856).
VII. The Chant Tune: VENI EMMANUEL
Of special interest in the melody edition is the chant tune that would later be known as VENI EMMANUEL, described here as “From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” The source of this tune confounded hymnologists for many years. The editors of The Music of the Church Hymnary (London, 1901) wrote, “These Missals have all been examined by the Rev. W. Hilton of the English College, Lisbon, but this melody is not to be found in them. In all probability, it is not a genuine mediaeval melody, but has been made up of a number of plain-song phrases, most of these being found in settings of the Kyrie” (p. 156). The editors of Hymns Ancient & Modern Historical Edition (1909), p. 59, expressed these sentiments in a condensed form. Other hymnal companions and hymnological studies followed suit, and began to name Thomas Helmore specifically as the composer or adaptor, since, as hymnologist Guy McCutchan put it in Our Hymnody (1937), Helmore was “one of the pioneers in the revival of the use of Gregorian Tones in the Anglican service.” The Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient & Modern (1962), p. 155, refrained from charging it to Helmore but reaffirmed that the Lisbon source had not been located. In an article in The Cambridge News, 21 Dec. 1965, a young Nicholas Temperley declared, “It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that he wrote it himself, using fragments of plainsong. Its elemental strength, and its capacity to inspire the most sluggish of congregations or carol singing groups, are apparently entirely due to the egregious Helmore.”
Helmore, in all fairness, was probably not the one who provided this tune for the Hymnal Noted. An unsigned article on plainsong in Stainer & Barrett’s Dictionary of Musical Terms (1881), attributed to Helmore by other sources, said the tune was “copied by the late J.M. Neale.” Neale had indeed visited Lisbon.
In 1853, Neale was commissioned to write a travel guide, later published as A Handbook for Travellers in Portugal (1855). Among the libraries he visited during his trips in 1853 and 1854 was the Bibliotheca Publica (Nacional) at Lisbon: “It is difficult to estimate the precise number of volumes, since so many duplicates, from the libraries of suppressed convents, are now in course of distribution and exchange. . . . The library is not well arranged, is very dark, and does not possess a general catalogue. Some of the most valuable books lie in heaps without any attempt at order” (p. 14). One of his companions during a May 1853 visit was Canon (later Bishop) H.L. Jenner, who assisted with Part II of the Hymnal Noted. His son later claimed that Jenner was the one who had transcribed the melody at Lisbon.
A chant tune source for VENI EMMANUEL was finally discovered in 1966. Mother Thomas More (Mary Berry) was examining manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, when a Mademoiselle Corbin offered her a 15th century processional that had belonged to French Franciscan nuns. One text in this volume, “Bone iesu dulcis cunctis,” bore the tune known as VENI EMMANUEL. In an article for The Musical Times, vol. 107, no. 1483 (Sept. 1966), p. 772, she noted that “Bone iesu” was a trope for the funeral chant “Libera me,” and it was inscribed in such a way that the melody appears on successive left pages and a countermelody appears on the right. Berry’s discovery thus opened a door to further research on the history of the tune. For more, see the article on “Bone Jesu dulcis cunctis.”
VIII. Revision of Neale’s Text
Neale’s translation is known to modern worshipers through important alterations in Hymns Ancient and Modern (trial ed., 1859; 1st ed. 1861 shown at Fig. 11). This altered version, generally credited to Henry Baker (1821–1877), is more consistent with the original antiphons and has a more fluid sense of iambic meter. The most significant of these changes are in the first line of every stanza, where he replaced Neale’s “Draw nigh, draw nigh” with “O come, O come,” and in the refrain, where “Shall be born for thee,” became “Shall come to thee.”
Fig. 11. Hymns Ancient & Modern (London: Novello, 1861).
Some other translations have entered into common use, either independently or in mixed combination with Neale’s work.
IX. Translation: Thomas Alexander Lacey
Departing from Hymns Ancient & Modern, probably for reasons of copyright and permission, the editors of The English Hymnal (1906 | Fig. 12) used a new translation by Thomas Alexander Lacey (1853-1931), who at the time was chaplain of the London Diocese Penitentiary at Highgate. Lacey’s version used the same five antiphons as Neale, in accordance with the original Latin poem. Lacey’s text was later expanded to seven stanzas in The New English Hymnal (1986). The harmonization by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) has a denser texture than what was given in Hymns Ancient & Modern.
Fig. 12. The English Hymnal (Oxford: University Press, 1906).
X. Translation: Henry Sloan Coffin
Another translation in common use is by Henry Sloan Coffin (1877–1954), as in Hymns of the Kingdom of God (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1923 | Fig. 13). Coffin’s version only has four stanzas, but it is different from Neale and Lacey in that it incorporates the Sapientia and Rex Gentium antiphons. When he wrote this, Coffin was pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, then later became president of Union Theological Seminary.
XI. Translation: R.A. Knox
Finally, the first complete, hymnic, seven-stanza translation by a single author is “O come, thou Wisdom” by Ronald A. Knox (1888–1957) for The Westminster Hymnal (London, 1939 | Fig. 14). Knox was a member of the editorial committee for the hymnal and had been a chaplain at Oxford University until his retirement in 1938. Knox’s version follows the traditional sequence of the Great Antiphons.
Fig. 14. The Westminster Hymnal (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1939).
This hymn of longing, in its various translations and forms, remains one of the most widely published and performed songs in the Christian church. As a song with rich, historic roots, it reminds us that we join with a long lineage of believers in worshiping through words and music that have served the church well for twelve centuries, and will likely serve it for many more years to come. As a song of anticipation, it reminds us that just as Israel waited for its Messiah, we also wait for his return. Frank Colquhoun, in his Hymns That Live (1980), p. 19, described it like this:
In the stanzas themselves we hear the voice of the People of Israel as they look forward in hope and address their earnest prayer to the promised Messiah: “O come! O come!” In the refrain we hear an answering voice—we might call it the answer of Faith, or the voice of Revelation—giving comfort and assurance to waiting Israel and saying, “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
21 November 2018
John Julian, “Antiphon,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 72-74: Google Books
Albert S. Cook, The Christ of Cynewulf (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1900): Google Books
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Joe Herl & Manuel Erviti, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 56.
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J.R. Watson & Emma Hornby, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
J.R. Watson & Emma Hornby, “Veni, veni, Emmanuel,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“O come, O come, Emmanuel,” Hymnary.org: