The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The "Adeste Fideles"

By James Britten, F.L.S.

Source: “The Irish Monthly.” Volume 11. (Dublin, McGlashan & Gill, 1883), pp. 111-114.

This article is reproduced as an example of the state of knowledge concerning this carol in 1883. Additional research has been performed in the intervening century, answering some of the questions raised in this document. Additional links are below.

Once more the echoes of the Angels' Song are dying away. The glad music of Christmas and Epiphany has already been subdued by the more solemn strains of Septuagesima, which lead the way to the "feast of penance," when the organ is silent in our churches. If there is one hymn more than another which is associated with Christmas-tide, it is the Adeste Fideles. Christmas would hardly be Christmas without it. From the cathedral, where its melody is underlaid with rich harmony, to the little mission chapel with its tiny choir of school-children, the Adeste is an indispensable accompaniment of the Christmas Masses and Benedictions. The melody, apart from the words, has a popularity of its own. We hear it in military bands at a soldier's funeral, and in the village Protestant church, where the "barrel-organ" still holds sway — if such church still remain in these days of "restoration" — we find it among the limited selection of tunes: not, indeed, set to its own proper words, but to a metrical version of the 94th Psalm, which begins: "O come, loud anthems let us sing." Ask a performer in the band, or him who turns the handle of the barrel-organ, the name of the tune, and the answer will be, "The Portuguese Hymn."

Now comes the curious part of the matter. The origin of this deservedly popular melody is, so far as I can ascertain, unknown; and of the source whence the words come we are equally ignorant. I venture to think, therefore, that it may interest some readers of "The Irish Monthly" if I put before them the state of our knowledge with regard to the Adeste, and if the result is to clear up a mystery—or a pair of mysteries—which has baffled wiser heads than mine, my display of ignorance will, I hope, be condoned on account of the benefit which has accrued therefrom.

The only point on which we can be clear is, how the name '' The Portuguese Hymn" originated. This is explained by Vincent Novello, in a note added to his printed copy (1843), which runs thus :—

"This piece obtained its name of 'The Portuguese Hymn' from the accidental circumstance of the Duke of Leeds, who was a director of the Concerts of Ancient Music many years since (about 1785), having heard the hymn first performed at the Portuguese Chapel, and who, supposing it to be peculiar to the service in Portugal, introduced the melody to the Antient Concerts, giving it the title of 'The Portuguese Hymn,' by which appellation the favourite and popular tune has ever since been distinguished; but it is by no means confined to the choir of the Portuguese chapel, being the regular Christmas hymn that is sung in every Catholic chapel throughout England."

The tune is often attributed, as by Novello, to John Reading, and supposed to date from about 1680. There were two John Readings —one a pupil of Dr. Blow; the other known as Reading of Winchester, the composer of Dulce Domum, and of graces with Latin words. As the first was not born until 1677, his claims may be set aside, if the date 1680 is of any value. Mr. W. H. Cummings is inclined to think that Reading of Winchester (who died in 1692), was the composer, but there is no direct evidence of this. The idea that the tune is of Plain Chant origin may be set aside at once. It does not seem to exist in any of the older paroissiens; nor can I find it in any foreign books, save such as are of recent date. But if Reading composed the tune, did he compose it for the words to which it is now all but universally sung; and if so, where did he find the words?

For this brings us to our second difficulty. Whence come the words— the Latin originals, I mean, for we will speak of translations afterwards. There has been, from time to time, a good deal of correspondence in "Notes and Queries" about the Adeste, from which I glean some of my facts ; but the two questions, "Who composed the tune?" "What is the origin of the words?" still remain unanswered. The "Appendix to the Hymnal Noted," says, "15th or 16th century." In the "Thesaurus Animć Christianć" (London: 1857), it is headed; "Alia Sequentia in Nativitate Domini (Ex Graduali Cisterciensi);" but no investigation has brought the said Gradual to light.

The Adeste occurs in modern French paroissiens and German hymnbooks, but not as we sing it in England and Ireland, When M. Gounod gave a series of concerts at the Albert Hall, some twelve years or so back, the Adeste was performed, but the version sung was that current in France and Germany, and three out of the four verses were new to Englishmen. It is to be noted that these verses fit well with those we all know, and form a harmonious whole. This is how it runs in the "Thesaurus" above cited:—

1 Adeste fideles, lreti triumphnntes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem!
Natum videte Regem Angelorum,
Venite adoremus Dominum!

2 Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine,
Gestant puellć viscera:
Deum verum, genitum non factum!
Venite adoremus Dominum!

3 En, grege relicto, humiles ad cunas
Vocati pastores adproperant;
Et nos ovanti gradu festinemus:
Venite adoremus Dominum

4 Ćterni Parentis splendorem ćternum,
Velatum sub carne videbimus
Deum infantem, pannis involutum,
Venite adoremus Dominum!

6 Pro nobis egenum et fśno cubantem
Piis foveamus amplexibus:
Sic nos amantem, quis non redamaret?
Venite adoremus Dominum!

7 Cantet nunc hymnos* chorus angelorum,
Cantet nunc aula cślestium:
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Venite adoremus Dominum!

8 Ergo, qui natus es die hodierno,
Jesu, tibi sit gloria:
Patris ćterni Verbum caro factum:
Venite adoremus Dominum!

Footnote:

* In most versions "Io."

In English Catholic Prayer-books, verses 1, 2, 6, and 7 are those universally printed; in French and German books verses 1, 3, 4, and 5 are usually given, though not always. A writer in "Notes and Queries" (5th series, xi., 331, April 26, 1879), gives another verse, which I have not myself seen elsewhere. It runs:—

Stella duce, Magi Christum adorantes,
Aurum thus et myrrham dant munera;
Jesu infanti corda prćbeamus:
Venite adoremus Dominum.'

Footnote:

In the Office Paroissial of tie diocese of Orleans the four verses run as in the version used in England.

In Catholic churches the words are almost, if not quite always, sung in Latin, the hymn being often sung as a motet at Benediction. In the Protestant churches the most usual rendering is that given "Hymns Ancient and Modern," of which this is the first verse :—

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem;
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

This version is based on the translation made by the Very Rev. Canon Oakley, then the Protestant minister of Margaret Chapel, London, of which the first verse was as follows :—

Ye faithful, approach ye, joyfully triumphing,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem;
Come and behold ye, born the King of Angels;
O come let us worship Christ the Lord.

The date of this would be about 1844, and it has been commonly thought to be the earliest English version; but a correspondent of "Notes and Queries," for August 30, 1879 (5th Series, xi., 173), writes: "The hymn was very commonly sung in the Lancashire churches certainly in 1820 (as my hymn-book shows) to the following words:—

Ye faithful, triumphant enter into Bethlehem,
Enter, oh, enter with joy of heart:
Tidings, glad tidings, sent from heavenly angels:
Oh, come let us adore the Lord.

We need not give the whole of this version. There is yet another, however, which we learn from "Notes and Queries" (5th Series, xi., 418), was " used in a [Protestant] church in Guernsey, about the year 1820, certainly not later than 1823," of which the first verse is:—

Exulting, triumphing come from every nation,
Come hither to Bethlehem, your offerings bring;
Come and behold One born for your salvation—
Oh, come let us adore Him, Christ our King.

This is, I believe, about all that is known of the history of the Adeste. It will be seen that it amounts to very little; and I am not without hope that by thus drawing attention to the fact further light may be thrown upon it.

Additional notes of interest:

Adeste Fideles - Notes On The Carol

Adeste Fideles: A Study On Its Origin and Development, Dom John Stephan, O.S.B., Publications,” Buckfast Abbey, South Devon, 1947

Adeste Fideles Translations

“Adeste Fideles” in the “Notes and Queries”

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