Songs of the Season ~ The ‘O’ Antiphons

Illuminated “O”

One of the most familiar and beloved Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” has its roots in Christian monastic life of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the seven days before Christmas Eve, a series of special antiphons — short phrases surrounding a liturgical psalm or canticle — would be sung. During that week, the antiphons were meant to point toward the Feast of the Incarnation, and to heighten anticipation of the celebration through references drawn from both Old and New Testaments.

Because their introductory phrases refer to various titles given to the coming Messiah, those last antiphons of Advent became known as the ‘O Antiphons.’

O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Genitium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God With Us)

The last antiphon, ‘O Emmanuel,’ traditionally was sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve. Perhaps as early as the 12th century, it was given a Latin metrical form and transformed into a hymn. When John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the architect of the Oxford Movement and a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered it in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,”  he included it in his collection of Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851) and it soon made its way into congregational settings.

Over the years, the popularity of the hymn never has waned. Stirring in a cathedral worship setting, it can be equally appealing when performed instrumentally. Now and then, an artist puts a personal stamp on the hymn in a way that is both faithful to the original and utterly new. Rearranging lyrics and simplifying their presentation, Enya has made a centuries old antiphon something wholly unexpected: both magical and memorable.


Comments always are welcome.

62 thoughts on “Songs of the Season ~ The ‘O’ Antiphons

    1. I’ve been singing this hymn for decades, but this is an especially touching arrangement. I’m happy it appealed to you, Oneta. A blessing Christmas to you and yours.

    1. Sometimes music disturbs the silence; at other times, it seems to distill the silence. In this version, it seems that every note is a drop of distilled silence. In the midst of the world’s cacophony, it’s sorely needed. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Andrew.

    1. Exactly. She’s been one of my favorites since she released her album Watermark in 1988. Even then, ‘pure’ and ‘ethereal’ were qualities of her voice; her voice, and her creative arrangements of familiar music, continue to be splendid.

    1. Her reputation has been built on her recordings; she doesn’t tour, and there have been very few live performances. She’s famously private, and often goes for years between albums. She doesn’t engage on social media, either. I laughed when I read her comment in an interview that she checks her email “every few weeks.”

      Introduced to her work by the Watermark album, I listened to “Orinoco Flow” uncounted times while sailing between Hawaii and Alaska. Even today hearing that song brings back the feel of the boat rhythmically cutting through the waves.

    1. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Bob. A little Latin never hurt anyone, as my own high school Latin teacher liked to remind us. We didn’t believe her at the time, but age brings wisdom.

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. Emmanuel has always been one of my favorite Christmas tunes. I’d always assumed it was old, because of its modality. I hadn’t considered that it might be chant though – but now that you say so, I can see how that would make perfect sense.

    1. After I learned about the O antiphons, the structure of the hymn became obvious. Together with “Silent Night” it was one of the first Christmas songs I learned, and being able to sing it from memory pleased me no end as a child. Musically, I was interested in the resolution present in the very last note of the song; it was beautifully done.

  2. I’ve long loved Enya’s voice and videos, so thank you for including this one, Linda. It’s an especially nice arrangement, and my four years of Latin stood me in stead when she switched to that! Thanks, too, for the explanation of the O Antiphons. I don’t guess I ever learned what was behind them, though I find them quite beautiful. Merry Christmas!

    1. Like you, I’ve enjoyed Enya for years, so I was pleased to find her version of this favorite hymn. I was well into adulthood before I heard about the O antiphons, but it took a while longer to dig into their history. They are beautiful: a combination of poetic words and memorable liturgical music. They suit the season well — I hope your Christmas is equally beautiful and memorable!

  3. As Derrick said–very nice analysis. I always enjoy these in the run up to Christmas and haven’t seen them explained so neatly before. And nice to hear Emmanuel so beautifully done on its appointed day!

    1. It can be hard to communicate centuries of history in the small space of a blog entry, so I’m glad the explanation seemed coherent to you. Both the Santa Lucia post and this one were ‘time sensitive,’ as they say; working on deadline is quite a different experience, even if it’s self-imposed. Still, as soon as I found the Enya version of the hymn I wanted to share it, so this was the time!

    1. I’ve wondered from time to time whether Enya’s way of life doesn’t contribute to the beauty of her music. Without the pressures of public performance, social media engagement, and constant production, it’s as though her music ripens more than it’s written. In any event, this is beautiful; her adaptations do heighten the sense of mystery.

      By the way — did you see that Joan Didion died? I’ve worn out two copies of her White Album.

    1. I’m glad I chose one of your favorites, John. Enjoy all the delights the season has to offer — including the gorgeous weather we’re going to have — and have a very merry Christmas.

    1. I love the sense of peacefulness Enya’s version creates. It’s hard for me to listen to it without slowing down a bit and letting the music wash over me. Christmas is a time for fireplaces and stars and gentle music.

    1. Merry Christmas to you, Sherry. I miss New York at Christmas time. My favorite event always was the light show at Saks 5th Avenue; they’re much fancier now, but who doesn’t love snowflakes dancing to Carol of the Bells?

  4. The acoustics in the great “Wool Churches” of England (built with money from the wool trade) are just amazing. Great boxes of stone and glass. Plain song sung in them is incredible. Those “O” antiphons have their origins in the stone basilicas of the Byzantine, but were perfected in the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. What it must have been like to see one when you were raised in a low-ceilinged thatched hut of wattle and daub, and the biggest building you’d ever seen in your life was a tythe barn. Must have been a truly mind-blowing experience.

    1. Acoustics make a difference, for sure. There’s a much smaller space in Houston — the Villa de Matel — that does the trick nicely, but there’s nothing like a cathedral. I didn’t get into the areas of England that were home to those wool churches, but after a few minutes spent browsing their history, I finally snapped to; it makes perfect sense that you, of all people, would be interested in and knowledgeable about the area.

    1. And also to you! Your name reminds me of all the wonderful French carols that have come down to us, including “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella.” My favorite might be Noël Nouvelet, , but we’ve run out of days, and the French will have to wait until next year!

    1. You’re well into your Christmas Day at this point. I see that Christchurch and Auckland share the same time, so you’ve either finished your Christmas dinner, or are looking forward to it. Four or five in the afternoon on our family Christmas day always was the time when people began wandering into the kitchen to see what appealing leftovers might be around, or to have another piece of pie.

      This seems to have been the shortest Advent I’ve experienced, but Enya’s music helps to slow time: at least, for me. I’m glad you enjoyed this selection, which I think is one of her best.

      1. Most people will have finished Christmas dinner and be considering whether they have room for leftovers. I decided to do something different this year which was to disengage from Christmas apart from sending greetings to family and friends. So tonight, it will be poached eggs on toast, which always makes me think of this Grace; “Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Thank you for poached eggs on toast.” And I do say thank you. May you have peace and joy.

        1. I’ve never heard that Grace, and it’s wonderful. Poached eggs on toast sounds good, too. My variation on that is creamed eggs on toast: comfort food at its finest.

  5. Just beautiful. Mine is not a religious connection, but rather an appreciation for a soulful voice, musical tones, and striking visuals, all combined into one bite-sized package. Thank you for sharing! Our best to you and yours this weekend and beyond, well into 2022. Be well and keep joyful, Linda!

    1. It’s always seemed to me that Enya has an ability to touch almost everyone. I’ve been following her work since the Watermark album, and while I have a few ‘special’ favorites, I’ve never turned off any of her songs. Her videos are well done, too.

      It’s hard to believe how quickly time is passing. My hope is that we get past January and February without any of the unpleasantness of last year. There certainly are signs everywhere of an early spring; today, I found Indian strawberry (Potentilla indica) not only blooming, but putting on fruit. Strawberry picking time at Frobergs’ Farm isn’t far away!

  6. You might guess that my parochial school upbringing would include singing many beautiful hymns of the season, especially performing for the Christmas Eve pageant each year. “Oh Come, O Come Emmanuel” was one of my favorites. Enya’s beautiful lilt of song takes me to a higher place of peace and simply being in the moment. As a young girl, singing along with my classmates, I never liked the piano accompaniment.

    May you find joy, delight and peace this holiday season. It looks to be rather balmy and bright in your neck of the woods – here too!

    1. Balmy and bright is one way of describing it — we set record highs again today, and there are mutterings about highs in the eighties for the next week. This is one time I hope the weather people are utterly wrong. Freezing weather isn’t on my wish list, but cooler would be nice.

      When I think about our Christmas pageant, I think mostly about the costumes: tinsel halos, shepherds in bathrobes. Sometimes we had a real lamb. I don’t remember us singing, although we must have. What I do remember with affection is the Christmas Eve candlelight service: extinguishing all the lights until only candlelight remained. Of course the hymn we sang during the lighting was “Silent Night.” If you haven’t heard Enya’s Gaelic version, I think you’ll enjoy it.

  7. Merry Christmas Linda!!

    My husband treated me to a better set of speakers for my computer and so I am listening to Enya now! Even with my poor ears the music is a lovely and magical treat!

    With great thanks always for the talents, images and words you share.

    1. And a Merry Christmas to you, Judy! I still had one of your Christmas cards with the poem about “Christmas Everywhere,” and I sent it to a Canadian friend who’s a great birder. It was fun to read the poem again, and I know she’ll enjoy it.

      What a gift, to be able to listen to music more clearly! I just found Enya’s Gaelic version of “Silent Night,” and it’s just as beautiful. You can find it here, with the Gaelic text. Her videos are so beautifully done.

      I hope your Christmas Day is filled with peace and joy. I’m glad for our nigh-perfect weather, even if it is a little warm. I’m going to roam about a bit either tomorrow or Sunday, and see what kind of wonderful birds I might find!

  8. That suggestion is very tempting. Perhaps tomorrow I will take advantage of our lovely weather and see what kind of birds I might find!! I’d planned to do so with some holiday visitors, but the course of the visit took different directions as happens with too short of time frames.

    I am glad that you had one of those cards to send and enjoy it still. I have a little stand by my computer that holds just about one postcard. And ever since you sent ‘Kindred Spirits” from Crystal Bridges it has resided there in easy view. I love the scene of the two men standing on the prominence overlooking the waterfall and woods. That was December 23 of 2013 can you believe it?

    I feel grateful for things like WordPress which help make miles no obstacle to friendship.

    Merry Christmas and a Very Happy Healthy 2022!!


    1. I’m so glad I went out yesterday. For one thing, the refuge I chose is having ‘open house’ starting today and going through New Year’s weekend. There will be special events for children, and so on. I suspect there will be crowds of people — or at least enough people that the auto tour route will be crowded. Yesterday? I saw four other people, and it was delightful.

      I also saw little blue herons, snow geese, sandhill cranes, teal of some sort (I think blue-winged), glossy ibis, white ibis (juvenile and adult), migrating red-winged blackbirds, and a murmuration of some sort of plain black bird I can’t identify. Not only that, I found some wildflowers blooming, along with the obligatory alligators sunning on the banks. All in all –a perfect day!

      I can’t believe that was in 2013. It seems like yesterday. It makes me want to save some money and do more traveling, while I still can. This is going to be a winter of working and saving, so that when the spring comes, I can cruise for wildflowers again!

      We do develop relationships and learn about people online — sometimes, we know people more deeply here than ‘real world’ friends know them. Here’s a little example. When you mentioned ‘Kindred Spirits,’ it reminded me that it was the favorite painting of the father of one of my commenter. Details like that make relationships real!

      I hope your Christmas Day was great. Here’s to a new year filled with even more wonderful sights and sounds, and birds galore for us both!

  9. As a child, I liked that hymn because it was sung on the first Sunday in Advent, which meant that Christmas was finally on its way. As an adult, I still like the hymn, but now I appreciate the beautiful tune and the meaningful lyrics. Thanks for sharing the video, I haven’t heard that version before.

    1. In my childhood Methodist church, this is the hymn that began our Advent season, too. It was one of my favorites; I always wished we could sing it every Sunday. Even though my favorites for Christmas have changed over the years, this still is on the list, and I was thrilled to find this version. I’d not heard it until this year, and I liked the way it sounds almost medieval, or like plain chant.

      I hope your celebrations were warm and joyful. Now, it’s on to a new year — but not until a few more days have passed. I’m not ready to take down the tree, or its lights, just yet.

    1. I’ve loved her music for years; I’m glad you do, too. She’s one musician who’s aged very well, and although it would be easy to say her music now is the ‘same’ as it was when she began, it really isn’t. I was happy to find this!

  10. Linda, this hymn fits so well with Advent’s preparation of what is waiting to come . . . Emmanuel. Thanks for sharing some history behind this hymn. Enya’s version of the hymn is filled with blessed mystery and wonder.

    1. Even with the most traditional aspects of our celebrations, change isn’t always bad. Enya’s arrangement of the hymn is wonderful; I’m glad you enjoyed it, and the bit of history.

  11. That was a double enlightenment. I’d never heard either the hymn nor Enya, although I am familiar with her as a crossword puzzle answer. Who could not find her voice ethereal and breathtaking? She reminds me of The Anonymous Four who I think you linked to many posts ago. Thanks!
    The Illuminated letter ‘O’ reminded me of a novel I read many years ago “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. I remember little about it aside from someone laboring at illuminating text. I suppose I should now reread it. I’ve always found Illuminated Text to be gorgeous and the work of dedicated individuals.

    1. I’ll bet you’ll remember this song by Enya, even if you didn’t know it was her at the time. It was used frequently in commercials, public service announcements, and such in the aftermath of 9/11. I thought she might have performed it at the Concert for NYC, but it’s not on the list of performers and songs, so I guess not. Anyway: it’s another gem, and one I keep on my personal playlist.

      I’ve heard of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but didn’t have a clue what it was about. Since I’ve never been a science fiction or fantasy fan, I guess it just passed me by. It certainly has an interesting premise. As for illuminated texts, I still remember my first purchase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a calendar featuring pages from The Book of Hours, and it was beautiful. I finally picked up another calendar from the hardware store because I couldn’t bear to write in the one from the Met.

        1. When I read the article you linked, all I could think was, “Well, it was the 70s, and it was Tom Robbins.” On the other hand, even though I didn’t know the novel, I sure enough have enjoyed this over the years.

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