O come, O come, Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lowly exile here Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.
This strange, mystical hymn is very old, with its origins probably around the seventh century and linked to monastic worship traditions, deriving from the O Antiphons which were sung in the days leading up to Christmas. The words are strongly reminiscent of passages in Revelation 22. Each verse reflects one of the ‘names’ of Emmanuel, and the Latin original also contains a kind of acrostic on the words ‘ero cras’, Latin for ‘I will be there tomorrow’. Whether or not the hymn originated in Germany, it was first published there in 1710 and developed there subsequently, taking on more of an Advent theme with each new edition. The version we sing, which is the most common English version, is a translation from the Latin by John Mason Neale in 1851. Neale, a sympathiser of the Oxford Movement, was a strong influence on Aberdeen’s own Rev. John Comper and inspired him to build St. Margaret’s Convent on the Spital.
The tune we use is also of some age: it was said to have been found in a French manuscript in Portugal by Thomas Helmore, an English composer, and published with an early form of Neale’s translation in 1851. This was never completely proved, but a 15th century copy of the tune was discovered in 1966 in a French manuscript in Paris, so there may indeed have been more than one copy, perhaps from an even older source. The pairing of words and music seem to match the darkness of Advent, the light of candles, the mystery of Christ’s anticipated birth – a perfect hymn for the season.