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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe

THE CHRISTMAS TUNE 'O COME O COME EMMANUEL'...




O come, O come Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the son of God appear.





This ancient tune with it's original latin words, ‘Veni Veni Emmanuel’, dates back first to the 7th century but very little is known about it in it's earliest incarnations. The composer is completely unknown. It wasn't until the 1960s when a musicologist called Mary Berry found a 15th century manuscript and discovered the old tune. It is believed that it was probably used as a 15th century French processional tune in an evening vespers service because the roots of the Latin text come from the ‘O Antiphons’. These were so-called because each one begins with an ‘O’, and they were traditionally used during the last seven days of advent during the Roman Catholic Vespers service.


In 1851 a priest and scholar named John Mason Neale translated the words into English and the tune and it's new lyrics then appeared in 1854, in a book called ‘The Hymnal Noted’ which was a collection of hymns put together by Thomas Helmore. It was then that this carol began its life as the beloved Christmas tune we know today. But it is quite interesting to note how unusual it is for a Christmas carol performed today to be so full of arcane words and expressions. It has a distinctly biblical feel and this sets it apart from the more usual happy and celebratory carols we are more used to.


I have created a string quartet arrangement of this wonderful old Christmas tune. I have rated it as being moderate to advanced. It isn’t technically difficult in the sense that it doesn’t have tricky position changes or difficult rhythms. There is only one note in the first violin part that is out of first position but the cello does have a short two/three bar phrase that is in third position. What could be quite tricky is getting it together rhythmically. There are meandering quaver sections that have to played in time with the slower tune. A more advanced group of players would find it easier to perform this arrangement well. But this arrangement could be also played by much more advanced players. I think even professionals would find enough in it to interest them. It is a piece that needs different moods and sounds and I think it could be an effective piece for an experienced group.



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