O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (iTunes)
Words from a Latin hymn, translated by John Mason Neale
Music from 13th century plainsong, arranged by Thomas Helmore
Many Advent hymns are based on ancient texts and tunes that portray the longing and expectation of the season. This week's hymn began as a Latin text "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel" centering around the "O Antiphons" from the final week of Advent vespers (evening prayer services). The "O Antiphons" were sung responses for choir and congregation, named because each one begins with "O" (O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel). The text originates from sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries and was translated into English by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) around 1850. Neale was an Anglican priest who was best known as a translator of ancient Greek and Latin hymns, including "Of the Father's Love Begotten," "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," and many others.
The tune that accompanies "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" came from a French Franciscan convent of nuns working in Portugal in the 15th century. Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), an Anglican priest and choirmaster, arranged the tune in the version we sing today. During his career, he became interested in medieval plainsong and worked with Neale to publish several collections of ancient Christmas carols. Because of the work of these men, believers today continue to sing the rich hymns of the church from centuries past.