O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(Header image via dreamstime.com, from the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence in Lugano, Switzerland)

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

by Latin hymn (words), plainsong (music), adapt. Thomas Helmore

Written originally in Latin, this Christmas hymn has multiple English translations and a confusing origin more generally:

J. M. Neale (1851)Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861)T. A. Lacey (1906)
Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear;
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, O Jesse’s Rod, draw nigh,
To free us from the enemy;
From Hell’s infernal pit to save,
And give us victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall be born, for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, Thou Orient, Who shalt cheer
And comfort by Thine Advent here,
And banish far the brooding gloom
Of sinful night and endless doom.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, draw nigh, O David’s Key,
The Heavenly Gate will ope to Thee;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall be born for thee, O Israel!

Draw nigh, draw nigh, O Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes from Sinai’s height
In ancient time didst give the Law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall be born for thee, O Israel!
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 didst give the law,
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel
That into exile drear is gone,
Far from the face of God’s dear Son.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Branch of Jesse! draw
The quarry from the lion’s claw;
From the dread caverns of the grave,
From nether hell, thy people save.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O Come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
The royal door fling wide and free;
Safeguard for us the heavenward road,
And bar the way to death’s abode.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Adonai,
Who in thy glorious majesty
From that high mountain clothed in awe,
Gavest thy folk the elder Law.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Additional verses trans. H. S. Coffin (1916)
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The words and the music of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” developed separately. The Latin text is first documented in Germany in 1710, whereas the tune most familiar in the English-speaking world has its origins in 15th-century France. More via wiki:

The five-verse Latin text

In spite of claims the Latin metrical hymn dates from the 11th or 12th century, it appears for the first time in the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum (Cologne, 1710). This hymnal was a major force in the history of German church music: first assembled by Jesuit hymnographer Johannes Heringsdorf in 1610 and receiving numerous revised editions through 1868, it achieved enormous impact due to its use in Jesuit schools.

Each stanza of the hymn consists of a four-line verse (in 88.88 meter with an aabb rhyme scheme), paraphrasing one of the O antiphons. There is also a new two-line refrain (again in 88 meter): “Gaude, gaude! Emmanuel / nascetur pro te, Israel,” i.e., “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel”. There are only five verses: two of the antiphons are omitted and the order of the remaining verses differs from that of the O Antiphons, most notably the last antiphon (“O Emmanuel”) becomes the first verse of the hymn and gives the hymn its title of “Veni, veni, Emmanuel”:

Text in Daniel, Thesaurus Hymnologicus (1844)

1. Veni, veni Emmanuel!
Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio. [7th antiphon]

Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel.

2. Veni o Jesse virgula!
Ex hostis tuos ungula,
De specu tuos tartari
Educ, et antro barathri. [3rd antiphon]

3. Veni, veni o Oriens!
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras. [5th antiphon]

4. Veni clavis Davidica!
Regna reclude coelica,
Fac iter Tutum superum,
Et claude vias Inferum. [4th antiphon]

5. Veni, veni Adonai!
Qui populo in Sinai
Legem dedisti vertice,
In maiestate gloriae. [2nd antiphon]

In 1844, the 1710 text was included in the second volume of Thesaurus Hymnologicus, a monumental collection by the German hymnologist Hermann Adalbert Daniel, thus ensuring a continued life for the Latin text even as the Psalteriolum came to the end of its long history in print.

It was from Thesaurus Hymnologicus that John Mason Neale would come to know the hymn. Neale would both publish the Latin version of the hymn in Britain and translate the first (and still most important) English versions.

The seven-verse Latin text

The 1710 text was published in Joseph Hermann Mohr‘s Cantiones Sacrae of 1878, with two additional verses of unknown authorship paraphrasing the two “missing” O antiphons. The order of verses now followed that of the antiphons (beginning with “Sapientia” and ending with “Emmanuel”), and accordingly the hymn’s title in this hymnal was “Veni, O Sapientia”. The refrain had undergone a slight change and was now “Gaude, gaude, O Israel. Mox veniet Emmanuel”, i.e. “Rejoice, rejoice, o Israel. Soon shall come Emmanuel”.[7]

1. Veni, O Sapientia,
Quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae
Ut doceas et gloriae.

Gaude, gaude, o Israel.
Mox veniet Emmanuel.

2. Veni, veni Adonai …

3. Veni, o Jesse virgula …

4. Veni, clavis Davidica …

5. Veni, veni, o Oriens …

6. Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium,
Veni, Redemptor omnium,
Ut salves tuos famulos
Peccati sibi conscios.

7. Veni, veni, Emmanuel …


I highly encourage you to read-sing the Latin. Wear a hoodie. Feel like a monk in a cathedral. More on the music’s origin, again from wiki below:

The music

Because “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a metrical hymn in the common 88.88.88 meter scheme (in some hymnals given as “ and refrain”), it is possible to pair the words of the hymn with any number of tunes. The meter is shared between the original Latin text and the English translation.

However, at least in the English-speaking world, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is associated with one tune more than any other, to the extent that the tune itself is often called Veni Emmanuel.

The “Veni Emmanuel” tune

The familiar tune called “Veni Emmanuel” was first linked with this hymn in 1851, when Thomas Helmore published it in the Hymnal Noted, paired with an early revision of Neale’s English translation of the text. The volume listed the tune as being “From a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon.” However, Helmore provided no means by which to verify his source, leading to long-lasting doubts about its attribution. There was even speculation that Helmore might have composed the melody himself.

The mystery was settled in 1966 by British musicologist Mary Berry (also an Augustinian canoness and noted choral conductor), who discovered a 15th-century manuscript containing the melody in the National Library of France. The manuscript consists of processional chants for burials. The melody used by Helmore is found here with the text “Bone Jesu dulcis cunctis”; it is part of a series of two-part tropes to the responsory Libera me.

As Berry (writing under her name in religion, Mother Thomas More) points out in her article on the discovery, “Whether this particular manuscript was the actual source to which [Helmore] referred we cannot tell at present.” (Recall that Hymnal Noted referred to Lisbon, not Paris, and to a missal, not a processional.) Berry raised the possibility that there might exist “an even earlier version of” the melody. However, there is no evidence to suggest that this tune was connected with this hymn before Helmore’s hymnal; thus, the two would have first come together in English. Nonetheless, because of the nature of metrical hymns, it is perfectly possible to pair this tune with the Latin text; versions doing so exist by Zoltán Kodály, Philip Lawson and Jan Åke Hillerud [sv], among others.

In the German language, Das katholische Gesangbuch der Schweiz (“The Catholic Hymnal of Switzerland”) and Gesangbuch der Evangelisch-reformierten Kirchen der deutschsprachigen Schweiz (“The Hymnal of the Evangelical-Reformed Churches of German-speaking Switzerland”), both published in 1998, adapt a version of the text by Henry Bone that usually lacks a refrain to use it with this melody.

Rise to hegemony

The pairing of the hymn text with the Veni Emmanuel tune was proved an extremely significant combination. The hymn text was embraced both out of a Romantic interest in poetic beauty and medieval exoticism and out of a concern for matching hymns to liturgical seasons and functions rooted in the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. The Hymnal Noted, in which the words and tune were first combined, represented the “extreme point” of these forces. This hymnal “consisted entirely of versions of Latin hymns, designed for use as Office hymns within the Anglican Church despite the fact that Office hymns had no part in the authorized liturgy. The music was drawn chiefly from plainchant,” as was the case with the Veni Emmanuel tune for “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the combination of which has been cited as an exemplar of this new style of hymnody.[20]

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was thus ideally situated to benefit from the cultural forces that would bring about Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. This new hymnal was a product of the same ideological forces that paired it with the Veni Emmanuel tune, ensuring its inclusion, but was also designed to achieve commercial success beyond any one party of churchmanship, incorporating high-quality hymns of all ideological approaches.

The volume succeeded wildly; by 1895, Hymns Ancient and Modern was being used in three quarters of English churches. The book “probably did more than anything else to spread the ideas of the Oxford Movement” (which include the aesthetics of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) “so widely that many of them became imperceptibly a part of the tradition of the Church as a whole.” Its musical qualities in particular “became an influence far beyond the boundaries of the Church of England.” It is very reflective of these cultural forces that the form of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in Hymns Ancient and Modern remains predominant in the English-speaking world. (This predominance encompasses not just the Veni Emmanuel tune, but also the revised English translation that included, for example, the title used in this article — see the section English versions below.)


In an attempt to ascertain who to credit as the song’s writer, I pulled up sheet music. I cannot help but feel that a Latin poet is going uncredited here, but I will mention Mr. Helmore at the top.

I am a fan of traditional Christmas hymns. They carry with them a solemnity that is sometimes missing from modern Christmas pop (not that there is anything wrong, per se, with rockin’ around a Christmas tree or celebrating Grandma’s demise at the hooves of reindeer.) But when one considers that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of God entering the world, as a human being, solemnity is owed its place at the celebratory table, too. This song *feels* connected to the earliest days of the Church (though it apparently is not quite so old as that.)

Anyway… here is a recording of the well-known song:

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