The Joyful Litany of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
The Latin original “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” traces its roots to the O Antiphons of the 8th century. Also called The Great Os, they were used for Advent Christian tradition services. In the 20th century, these O Antiphons were used also during the Catholic Mass for the same use. The O Antiphons were praise litanies which were important to the believers because each O Antiphon is a title of the Messiah and each one refers to the prophecy in Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah. English writer J.M. Neale translated the Latin to English and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).
The first stanza’s theme is followed by the entrance of vocal parts one after another alternating with instrumental parts in the succeeding stanzas. The fugue tune begins from the second stanza to the last. The tune is an echo of the mood of longing of Israel for salvation, awaiting the Messiah. And even after the resurrection of Christ, longing, aching, and hoping continues throughout the ages. Even during Advent and Christmas, considered overall joyful times, sadness persists. But this doesn’t dampen the joy of the children who are encouraged to embrace the joy with all their might. It’s just that in reality, its observance doesn’t magically fix everything wrong in the world. The hymn is in its essence a litany of hope. There is rejoicing within the music.
The tune Veni Emmanuel was fused to the metrical lines of Neale’s English translation by Thomas Helmore and published in the Hymnal Noted (1851). Neale’s work was a wild success because it echoed the medieval plainchant in metered verses and it fit the liturgical seasons and functions of the Anglican Church. By 1895, Hymns Ancient and Modern were utilized in the majority of England’s churches, making “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” a popular Advent hymn. Even beyond England, the song captured the English-speaking world.