The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Backup-Notes on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

For Advent

Words: Veni, Veni, Emanuel (the "O" Antiphons),
Authorship Unknown, 8th Century Latin;
Published: Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, Köln, 1710.

Music: "Veni Emmanuel," 15th Century French Plain Song melody,
Arranged and harmonized by Thomas Helmore in
Hymnal Noted, Part II (London: 1856)
Based on a 15th Century French Processional
(Some sources give a Gregorian, 8th Century origin.)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Melody Only: MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

Alternate Music: "St. Petersburg," Dimitri S. Bortniansky
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / Sheet Music / XML
"Veni Emmanuel," Charles F. Gounod (1818-1893)
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML


"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall call his name Emmanuel."
Isaiah 7:14

The Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, written in 1851 by the Rev. John Mason Neale (1818-66), was based on one of the oldest of Christian prayers — referred to as the "O" Antiphons, the "Greater" Antiphons, and "The Seven O’s."

The "Greater" Antiphons are, in their original order:

  1. "O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi..." (O Wisdom from on high...)

  2. "O Adonai et dux domus Israel..." (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel...)

  3. "O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum..." (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people...)

  4. "O Clavis David et sceptrum domus..." (O Key of David and scepter of our home...)

  5. "O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae..." (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light...)

  6. "O Rex gentium et desideratus..." (O longed-for King of the nations...)

  7. "O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster..." (O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver...)

The full text of these, with notes, can be seen at: The O Antiphons (which also includes some possible scriptural underpinnings; see also Five Prose Antiphons. These should be considered a sampling of translations from the Latin, not a complete collection (hardly a modern rendition exists that has not been "Adapted by the Editors" -- making a complete collection virtually impossible).

These seven antiphons were originally recited as a part of the evening Vespers prayers of the Catholic Church before and after The Magnificat in the Octave before Christmas, December 16 to 23 (the Vespers for Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, are those for the Christmas Vigil). Prior to the Reformation, it was sung from 16 to 23 December, omitting St. Thomas’ Day (December 21). These seven days are also known as the Greater Ferias. After the reformation, they were recited from Dec. 17 through Dec. 23.

Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Savior by a different name, and closing with petitions appropriate to the title. Thus:

Address and Praise:
     O EMMANUEL, God with us, Our King and Lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Saviour:
Closing Petition:
     COME to save us, O Lord our God. Amen.

One verse was sung or chanted each evening (as opposed to being sung together as a single hymn, as we do today).

According to one source, on December 17th the Abbot would intone the first Antiphon, O Sapientia. On successive nights, each principal officer of the monastery would take his turn with another of the Antiphons. A After the service, the officer was expected to provide some sort of treat, usually edible, for all the monks.

The antiphons date back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771-814). The 439 lines of the English poem Christ, by Cynewulf (c. 800), are described as a loose translation and elaboration of the Antiphons. B One source stated that Boethius (c. 480-524) made a slight reference to them, thereby suggesting their presence at that time. C Julian reports that two 11th century copies can be found in manuscripts in the British Museum and the Bodleian. The usage of the "O Antiphons" was so prevalent in monasteries that the phrases, "Keep your O" and "The Great O Antiphons" were common parlance.

At least two — and up to five — additional verses were later added to the original seven. D However, it is clear that these seven were designed as a group, since their initial letters (ignoring the 'O' that precedes each line) spell out the reverse acrostic 'SARCORE' — 'ero cras', that is, "I shall be [with you] tomorrow."

According to some sources, by the 12th or 13th century, but no later than the eighteenth century, five of the verses had been put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain "Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel" ("Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel; Shall come to thee, O Israel") (there was no refrain in the original Latin chant). The earliest known metrical form of the "O" Antiphons was a Latin version in an Appendix of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, (Cologne, 1710, from the Tridentine rite).

In 1851, Rev. John Mason Neale would publish the five Latin verses in his Hymni Ecclesiae. Also in 1851, it was translated by and published in Neale’s Medieval Hymns. The original title was "Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel." With slight revision, it was also published in 1851 in Neale and Thomas Helmore’s The Hymnal Noted - Parts I and II. By 1867, it would be published in Hymns Ancient and Modern with the more familiar title of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (Hymn 36, with Latin verses and the note "Altered by the Compilers"); it's been written that Dr. Neale participated in this editing of his hymn for this publication.

"Emmanuel" (or "Immanuel") is the name of the Messiah as prophesied by the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (see Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Matthew 1:23).

Thomas Alexander Lacey (1853-1931) translated another popular version with all seven verses, five of which first appeared in The English Hymnal (1906); see: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel - Version 2The New English Hymnal (1986) also contains these five verses, but adds two additional verses, from the "Editors". Several of his verses, together with those by Henry Sloane Coffin (1877-1954), appear with the Neale translation above. Subsequent to The English Hymnal, Lacey issued The Great Advent Antiphons: The English Translation Revised by T. A. Lacey (8 pages, 1928). I have, so far, been unable to locate a definitive source for the earliest translation by Lacey.

Rev. Coffin's translations of verses 2 and 3 (above) originally occurred in Henry Sloane Coffin and Ambrose White Vernon, eds., Hymns of the Kingdom of God. Revised (New York: The A.S. Barnes Company, 1916).

The translations by Neale and Lacey (and the version "Draw Night, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel") correspond to the original verses as seen in the following table:

Original Verses:


1. O Sapientia (O Wisdom)


2. O Adonai (O Lord)


3. O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)


4. O Clavis David (O Key of David)


5. O Oriens (O Dayspring)


6. O Rex gentium (O longed-for King)


7. O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel)


The Catholic Book of Worship III gives seven verses, with attribution to Neale (alt.). The New English Hymnal gives seven verses, with attribution to Lacey and the "Editors." The Hymnal 1940 gives seven verses, without attribution (although likely a composite of Neale and Lacey). Both Glory & Praise (Second Edition) and Choral Praise Comprehensive give seven verses, with attribution to Neale and The Hymnal 1940 (e.g., Lacey's verses 2 and 7, alt.). Lutheran Worship gives seven verses with attribution to "John M. Neale, alt."

Today, most hymnbooks use just five of the seven original salutations addressed to the anticipated Messiah, primarily based on the John Mason Neale translation (although frequently altered). In some hymnals, the Emmanuel verse is both the first and last verse.

Versions that have been found and posted on this site:

Prose Translations

Metrical Versions

An additional metrical version that is being sought was by W. J. Blew in his Church Hymn & Tune Book, 1852 (Title unknown).

William Cooke and Benjamin Webb, editors of The Hymnary – A Book of Church Song (1872), included a series of seven hymns based on the Seven “Great O” Antiphons, each with its own tune. They are:

In his book Advent, Abbott Prosper Louis Guéranger, O.S.B., explored numerous topics relative to that season, including the seven Great Antiphons (plus translation four "added" antiphons). Advent is volume 1 of the 15-volume The Liturgical Year, begun circa 1841. Translation by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B., circa 1867. Guéranger's Preface: The Commencement of the Great Antiphons. His commentaries on the individual Antiphons:


The Origins of the Tune

The origins of the tune had been in some doubt. In 1881, Thomas Helmore stated that the source was a French missal and that Neale had copied the tune. H. Jenner challenged this assertion in a 1909 letter in which he stated that the hymn and tune came from a manuscript presented to Helmore which his father, Bishop Jenner, who had copied it in 1853 from a manuscript in the Lisbon library. Subsequent searches of that library failed to locate the document.

However, the issue was resolved when in 1966 Dr. Mary Berry (Mother Thomas More, 1917-2008) discovered the tune in a manuscript at Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale; the tune was for a processional for a community of French Franciscan nuns. Dr. Berry 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.

Dr. Erik Routley wrote that the "Great O's" formed the foundation of a hymn written by Bishop C. W. Stubbs (1845-1923) performed in 1911 at the Truro Cathedral's Festival of Lessons and Carols. He noteed:

The opening carol of the 1911 service is a hymn in seven verses, each of six tens, on the Great O's of Advent. But one remarkable discovery is among the carols, taken from Cynewulf's Christ (about A.D. 750), beginning in its modern version under the title The Carol of the Star:

They came three Kings who rode apace
To Bethlem town by God's good grace,
    Hail, Earendel!
    Brightest of angels.

Foudre! it was a duteous thing
Wise men to worship childe King;
    God-light be with us,
    Hail, Earendel!

"Earendel" is a fanciful name for the Star which guided the wise men.

The carol was set to music by T. Tertius Noble (1867-1950); it was based on the poem by Charles William Stubbs, Bishop of Truro, The Carol of the Star.

The lines from Cynewulf's Christ are:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,

over Midgard to men sent,E

and true radiance of the Sun

bright above the stars, every season

thou of thyself ever illuminest.

At least two other hymns also have the pattern of addressing Christ by one of his titles, and then requesting his assistance: O Quickly Come, Dread Judge of All and Crown Him With Many Crowns.

See also Christ by Cynewulf, The O Antiphons, The Prose Antiphons and The Great Advent Antiphons.

Michael Martin, at his "Thesaurus Precum Latinarum: Treasury of Latin Prayers," Veni Emmanuel, has the alignment between the Latin hymn and English translations, as well as other excellent resources for the Latin student or scholar.

For more about the O Antiphons, including graphical representations, see Jeanne Kun's The Antiphons of Advent.

Additional Notes:

A. And in this manner is similar to the assignment of readings in the modern Festival of Nine Lessons And Carols at King's College. See generally Carol Services. Return

B. Robert Boenig, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, p. 53. Part I of the poem "Christ" relates to the Advent, and is described as a loose translation and elaboration of the O Antiphons. However, only part II (Ascension) is now believed by some to be the work of Cynewulf; the authorship of parts I and III (The Second Coming) are less certain. Boenig contains a poetic translation (pages 217-229), with excellent explanatory notes (pages 307-311). The Charles Kennedy prose translation can be seen at Cynewulf-Christ-Kennedy (; accessed March 24, 2007). Also see the translation by Charles Huntington Whitman of Part I. Advent (; accessed March 28, 2007). For additional notes, see: Christ by Cynewulf. This poem is found in the Exeter Book of the 11th century, a gift by Bishop Leofwine in 1072 to the Exeter cathedral library. Return

C. The reference here concerns the writings of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (Roman statesman and philosopher, ca. 480-524; link is to his biography in the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent). Neither that source, nor others with similar references, have identified the location of this allusion. My best guess would be his "De institutione musica" (The Fundamentals of Music). A Latin copy of De institutione musica, liber IV available on-line at Liber IV (; accessed April 1, 2007). I have been unable to locate an on-line English translation. However, I've found references to the book Fundamentals of Music, trans. Calvin M. Bower, ed. Claude V. Palisca (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); I will attempt to borrow a copy on inter-library loan. Please check back. Return

D. Some service books contained eight antiphons, the Sarum Breviary had nine antiphons, and in some traditions, there were twelve. The eighth and ninth additional antiphons were:

8. O Virgo virginum, quomodo fied istud? quia nec primum tui similis visa est, nec habebis sequentum. Translation by Dom Guéranger: "O Virgin of Virgins, how shall this be? for never was there one like thee, nor will there ever be." An antiphon to Mary, the mother of Jesus, added, according to Julian, by the liturgiologist Amalarius in the Ninth Century, and found in the Sarum, York, and Hereford Breviaries. According to Cook, it is included for the feast of the Expectation of the Virgin, Dec. 18.

Cook gives: O Virgo Virginum, quomodo fiet istud? quia nec primam similem visa es, nec habere sequentem.

9. O Thoma Didyme, qui Christum meruisti cernere: te precibus rogamus altisonis, succurre nobis miseris, ne damnemur cum impils in Adventu Judicis (an antiphon to St. Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day is December 21, found in The Sarum Breviary).

Translation: O Thomas Didymus! who didst merit to see Christ; we beseech thee, by most earnest supplication, help us miserable sinners, lest we be condemned with the ungodly, at the coming of the Judge. Source: Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB, Advent, ca. 1841, Volume 1, The Liturgical Year, translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B., ca. 1867. London: Stanbrook Abbey, 1918, p. 496.

When these two are added (or the antiphon O Gabriel), some churches believe that the nine orders of angels are signified. For more, see Christ by Cynewulf. Return

E. It was this stanza from Cynewulf that provided a strong influence on the noted philologist J. R. R. Tolkien, well-known for his works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The translation of the first two lines of this stanza by Gollancz is:

Hail, heavenly beam, brightest of angels thou,
sent unto men upon this middle-earth ! [Emphasis added]

This was the first of nine references to "middle-earth" in this translation. "Earendel" became the name of one of Tolkien's characters, "Eärendil the Mariner," a hero of the First Age whose star figures in The Hobbit. Return

The Magnificat (The Canticle of the Blessed Virgin), Luke 1:46-55:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God My Saviour;
Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid;
for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
And his mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with all good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant,
mindful of his mercy —
Even as he spoke to our fathers —
to Abraham and to his posterity forever.
Glory be to the Father.

Compare: Ave Maria. Return

Isaiah 7:14: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (KJV) Return

Matthew 1:23: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (KJV) Return


All web sites accessed between March 20 and 23, 2002.

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