Tuesday, 20 December 2016

O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

This hymn was originally in Latin, and was composed perhaps around the 12th century. The 19th century translator of so many hymns from Latin, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), said he discovered it in the appendix of the seventh edition of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, which was published in Cologne in 1710.

But his original translation was very different from that sung today, and as will be seen is much closer to the Latin:

Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel
And loose Thy captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear;

Refrain: Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
Is born for thee, O Israel!

O Rod of Jesse’s stem, arise,
And free us from our enemies,
And set us loose from Satan's chains,
And from the pit with all its pains!

Thou, the true East, draw nigh, draw nigh,
To give us comfort from on high!
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds, and bring us light!

Key of the House of David, come!
Reopen Thou our heavenly home!
Make safe the way that we must go,
And close the path that leads below.

Ruler and Lord, draw nigh, draw nigh!
Who to Thy flock in Sinai
Whodst give, of ancient times, Thy Law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.

This is very close to the Latin. Neil Conway has provided online the Latin and a translation, and the later rendering. Here is his translation of two key stanzas, which differ markedly from the later revision:


Veni veni, Emmanuel
captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio,
privatus Dei Filio.

Literal Translation:

Come, come Emmanuel
break the bond of Israel
which mourns in exile
deprived of God's Son

Today’s version:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Veni, Clavis Davidica,
regna reclude caelica,
fac iter tutum superum,
et claude vias inferum.

Come Davidic Key
unlock the heavenly kingdoms
Make the above safe
and close the lower ways

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.

There is a much greater realisation of a picture closer to Dante in the original Latin, with the way that leads on high to heaven (“that leads on high”), and the lower ways which lead to hell (“close the lower ways”). That is the picture in Medieval wood carvings and wall paintings,

The Reverend Thomas Alexander Lacey (1853–1931) created a new translation (also based on the five-verse version) for The English Hymnal in 1906, and this appears to be the one we use today.

But the original music seems to have been lost, although it would have been part of a series of plainchant antiphons for advent. The familiar tune called Veni Emmanuel was first linked with this hymn in 1851, when Thomas Helmore published it in English Hymnal 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.

The source for this was uncovered in 1966 by Dr. Mary Berry who discovered the tune in a manuscript at Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale, being a tune for a processional for a community of French Franciscan nuns. She wrote:

“My attention had been drawn to a small fifteenth century processional in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. It was Franciscan in origin and probably intended far the use of nuns rather than friars. Turning the pages I discovered, on folio 89v ff, a number of troped verses for the funeral responsory Libera me in the form of a litany, beginning with the words "Bone iesu, dulcis cunctis.” The melody of these tropes was none other than the tune of O come, O come Emmanuel. It appeared in square notation on the left-hand page, and on the opposite page there was a second part that fitted exactly, like a mirror-image, in note-against-note harmony with the hymn-tune. The book would thus have been shared by two sisters, each singing her own part as they processed.”

“So it would seem that this great Advent hymn-tune was not, in the first instance, associated with Advent at all, but with a funeral litany of the saints in verse, interspersed between the sections of a well-known responsory.”


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