The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Mother Thomas More (the religious name of Dr. Mary Berry)

The Musical Times. Vol. 107, No. 1483 (Sep., 1966), p. 772

Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.

The provenance of the well-known hymn-tune O come, O come, Emmanuel has hitherto baffled both editors and researchers. It first appeared in modern times in the second part of The Hymnal Noted (1854), and was said by the editor, Thomas Helmore, to have been taken 'from a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon'. The compilers of the 1909 historical edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern admitted, however, that all efforts to trace it had failed. They concluded that it was probably an adaptation of a plainsong Kyrie.1  When a revision of this erudite and useful work of reference appeared in 1967, a summary was given of later attempts to track down the elusive melody. The editors had slightly tempered their earlier pessimism, heading their remarks with the admission 'So far all efforts to trace it have failed' (my italics). The article continued as follows:

According to Helmore in an article on Plainsong (Dictionary of Musical Terms, Stainer and Barrett, 1881) the tune was 'copied by the late J. M. Neale from a French Missal.' See Musical Times, Nov 1959.

In a letter to the press in 1909 H. Jenner said that his father, Bishop Jenner, copied the tune in Lisbon in 1853, and when asked 40 years later what he remembered about it said he could not remember what the book was, but thought it contained both the words and the tune.2

Tradition dies hard, and the idea seems to have persisted of a possible source in some old French service-book 'Missal' might well be a term easily misapplied by the uninitiated. Disregarding the caution of the editors of the Historical Companion, however, a recent researcher has made the ingenious suggestion that Helmore invented the tune himself, lending Gothic glamour to it by pretending it was an ancient tune from a 'French Missal'. The whole paragraph is worth quoting:

O come, O come Emmanuel was published by Thomas Helmore as an ancient tune 'from a French Missal', but it is now established beyond reasonable doubt that he wrote it himself, using fragments of plainsong. Its elemental strength, and its capacity to inspire the most sluggish of congregations or carol singing groups, are apparently entirely due to the egregious Helmore.3

Surely, in all fairness to Helmore, such an accusation of false presences should have been supported by weightier evidence than failure to find the alleged source! But where was one to search? In France? or in Portugal? The field was vast.

My own research into later medieval chant has led me to search out single sources containing different styles of plainsong. A few months ago, when working in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Mademoiselle Corbin drew my attention to a small 15th-century Processional which had belonged to French Franciscan Nuns4 On folio 89ff there are a number of additional verses for the funeral responsory Libera me, beginning 'Bone iseu dulcis cunctis'. The melody of these tropes is none other than the tune of O come, O come Emmanuel. It appears on the left-hand page, noted in square puncta. On the right-hand page is a second part which fits in note-against-note harmony with the hymn-tune. Here, then, is undoubted proof that the melody was known and sung at least four hundred years before Helmore's time. Whether this particular manuscript was the actual source to which he referred we cannot tell at present. His honour is vindicated, however, and henceforward the hymn-tune can be classified as late medieval until some scholar finds an even earlier version of it.


1. Hymns Ancient and Modern. Historical Edition (London 1909) p. 59.  Return

2. Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern, ed., Maurice Frost, Litt D (London 1962), p. 155.  Return

3. Nicholas Temperley in The Cambridge News, 21 Dec 1965.  Return

4. Paris, Bibl Nat, Fonds Latin, MS 10.581.  Return

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