Monday, November 29, 2010

Music and Identity: Advent Memories ~ O Come, O Come Emmanuel

I grew up in the Catholic Church, and many of my childhood Christmas memories are associated with the church services that took place during Advent, leading up to mass on Christmas Eve. 

The season started out plainly, the only decoration in the church being an advent wreath containing four candles.  On that first Sunday, the first candle would be lit, and another candle would be lit on each of the following three Sundays before Christmas.  The purpose of the Advent wreath, as well as Advent itself, was to remind us of the coming of the Christ child, and the idea was that we were to use this time to prepare ourselves for that event. 

The singing of Christmas hymns in church did not begin until that first Sunday in Advent; and at that early date, when Christmas seemed (in my boys’ eyes) a long time away, we traditionally sang a hymn that I associate with my earliest memories of the Christmas season:  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

The origins of the music of this hymn are unclear.  It is believed that the traditional music stems from a 15th century French processional for Franciscan nuns, but the melody may also be based on antiphons (short statements sung at the beginning of a Psalm or of the Magnificat at vespers) going back to at least the 8th century.  Each of the antiphons greets the Savior with one of His various titles used in the Scriptures, names such as "Emmanuel," "Lord of Might," "Key of David," and "Rod of Jesse." 

The original lyrics were in Latin, the text being based on Isaiah 7:14, which states that God will give Israel a sign that will be called Immanuel.  The text was translated in English in the mid-19th century.  I can remember both versions being sung, the Latin during my early childhood when the mass was still in Latin, and the English from when I was older.

Yesterday marked the beginning of Advent, and as another in a series of posts about music that has given meaning to my life (as I seek to regain lost elements of my identity after coming out), I am sharing this Advent hymn by posting two arrangements, the first a traditional Latin version sung by the L’Accroche Choir Ensemble of Fribourg, Switzerland (which has recorded a number of beautiful Christmas carols – including several in French – that are available on iTunes), and the second a contemporary version sung by Enya.

The English lyrics are as follows. 

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.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I too come from a Roman Catholic background. While listening to this music, I could smell the frankincense, see the dimly lit church with the warmth and glow of white candles, the smell of wool and cold air from my coat, and the feeling of awe and spiritual uplifting that the whole ritual bestowed inside of me.

  2. I love this hymn!

    Have you ever seen "The Nativity Story" directed by Catherine Hardwicke? The movie begins with an arrangement of this hymn, written by Mychael Danna. It's a beautiful movie, with even more beautiful of a score.

  3. Apronkid - So glad it found an admirer! I've always associated it with the almost mystical beginning of the Christmas season.

    We have that DVD, but I don't think I've ever watched it. Now, I must do so!