Thoughts on an Advent Carol

The refrain of "Emanuel" in four part harmony.

Patheos Catholic Channel blogger Leah Libresco has posted an interesting Advent reflection today centering on one of my favorite carols, O Come, Emmanuel.

“(I) like the way the final line of the chorus is paced.  Emmanuel is spread over eight counts, twice as many as it has syllables.  and, when we get to the end of the elongated phrase, the first note of the next phrase turns up a little early, just inside the measure, as the last note of that four-count.  More than once, as I’m adjusting to how long a choir chooses to hold the dotted half-note, I’ve been surprised by the start of the “Shall” and had to breathlessly leap into the next phrase.”

I find myself reacting to this post in three ways, based on three different “hats” I’ve worn in my life.

As a writer, I think it is a powerful metaphor for the season, particularly for its focus on the second Advent. This might surprise some Christians from outside Catholic (and Catholic inspired) liturgical traditions, but at this point in the lectionary, the focus isn’t Christmas yet. We’ll get there in a few weeks, right before the celebration of the Nativity itself, but for now the emphasis in on Christ’s coming at the end of time.

Pantocrator and Theotokos

During Advent, read from left to right.

And that’s the coming of which “no one knows the day or hour,” so the surprise that catches Libresco gasping for breath is a great analogy for the surprise that will catch us all breathless— probably at our own death and particular judgement, but none of us can know the day or hour of that momentous event either.

As a musician—with an advanced degree in composition, and years of experience singing in school, church, and professional choirs—my mind jumps straight to the practical matter of where to breathe. The phrasing is pretty obvious. Those dotted half notes on the second syllable of “Rejoice!” should be sung as half notes followed by quarter rests. This phrasing serves both a practical and a dramatic purpose.

First, the singers need to take a large breath in order to sing the rest of the phrase—”Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”—without a break. Syntactically, that’s how the line should be sung. After all, it’s Israel that’s rejoicing, not Emmanuel. (I hate when choirs sing it the other way. It makes no sense.)

Second, the drama of the phrase demands a loud resounding “Rejoice!” with a clear silence after it. The anonymous composer of this beautiful chant (originally written in Latin) clearly wanted to imitate a trumpet fanfare here. The quarter-half figure with a break after captures that auditory image.

And Robert Shaw backs me up on both points.

Finally, as a one who formerly considered the path to ordination and became a liturgy geek in the process, I might complain that Veni Emmanuel belongs in the second half of Advent, since it is based on the O Antiphons that are traditionally chanted with the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17 to 23, as the emphasis of the season transitions to Christmas. But that would make me a bit of a stick in the mud, so never mind.

This is my first “Music Monday” post. On Mondays, from here on, I plan to bring a little of my background as a composer and musician to this blog. I hope you enjoy it and maybe learn a little from it.


One thought on “Thoughts on an Advent Carol

  1. I’m right with you, David! ‘O come, Emmanuel’ is my favorite Advent carol, though u[ through even adulthood I mistook this for a Christmas Carol. Somber, simple, and to the point. Christ came to bring salvation to the world. “…and ransomed captive Israel” has always brought chills down my spine when I think of the long line of generations, from Adam and Eve,Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, and the israelite Martyrs of the Old Testament singing this song in their souls (obviously I’m speaking metaphorically. The carol maybe is from an Antiphon of the 8th or 12th century, the version we are talking about mid-19th century). It has a very “Jewish” feel to it, to mourning mixed with hope of liberation, though self controlled, the very hope muted to as not reach a point where one realizes that once again,the time is not right. It is a song of the breath drawn as if to say, “Can I dare to hope this time?”. This is how I’ve always felt about this carol. And like my brothers and sisters of both the Old and New Testament, I also wait with bated breath the second Advent of my Lord.
    Thank you, david for your post of this simple and beautiful carol.

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