Advent Stories: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Paris, 1966

Mother Thomas More (Dr. Mary Berry)

Dr. Berry conducting in 1999.

It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.

And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.

You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.

The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.

Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.

I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.

His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying.

There are those who challenge this claim, pointing out that it was fashionable for Victorians to give a Gothic flair to their original creations by pushing their origins farther down the timeline. Helmore, they speculate, simply made up the tune himself and claimed another source, in a queer sort of reverse plagiarism.

I jotted down one such accusation in my notes here: “The song’s elemental strength, and its capacity to inspire the most sluggish of congregations or carol singing groups, are apparently entirely due to the egregious Helmore.”

Egregious, for those of you interested in word origin, can mean either flagrantly awful or distinguished. It’s up to us to sort out which the author intended.

But do you see now why I wanted to prove them wrong so badly? I’m sure Helmore was a good man and talented musician, but I knew he couldn’t have written that hymn. Can’t you hear it, listening to the haunting melody? I knew, even as a little girl hearing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on a candlelit Christmas Eve, that it was older than a few generations.

I knew it, with as much certainty as I knew my own name. But to the rest of the world, I had to prove it.

But where to start? Neale and Helmore had traveled the world during their lives, as I have. France? Portugal? The north of Africa? Surely not.

At the time, I was writing my doctoral thesis on thesis on the performance of plainsong in the late Middle Ages in French. So, as a matter of practicality, the starting point would be France. Specifically, the Bibliotheque Nationale, a repository of information beyond compare.

After months of research, my colleague Mademoiselle Corbin drew my attention to a small 15th-century Processional which had belonged to French Franciscan Nuns. As I paged carefully through it, I found the funeral repository, and on folio 89ff on the left-hand page, there it was: the melody of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Noted in ancient script, the harmony on the right-hand page fitting with the hymn’s tune note for note, perfectly matched.

It’s possible that Neale or Helmore held that very volume, written at least four hundred years before their birth and containing melodies centuries older. It filled me with awe, more than approaching the site of any sacred pilgrimage. Because music is a relic too, holier than mere objects touched by a saint or apostle. Music lives and changes and moves each new generation in a way that wood and metal and stone cannot.

Music is not preserved. It preserves us.

My discovery vindicates Helmore’s honour—that’s the angle I plan to use in the article—but it goes much deeper. It vindicates the honour of my beloved plainchants. Proves that they have enduring power to last for generations and still move us.

And yet, the article remains unwritten. I know what I ought to say. But there’s so much more I want to say.

Sometimes, it feels like I’m on the last train to Paris. I know the invaders are coming, and they will destroy what is most dear to me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

Times change, and I am not changing with them. It is not enough that I have to watch my body fade and fall into disrepair, but I must watch the liturgy of the church deteriorate as well.

On my darkest days, I wonder: when I am gone, will the plainchants be too?

And then comes December and I play the beautiful minor key of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I listen to the silence in the room after the last note has faded.

I hear the words.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I know the world will never lose an appreciation for beauty. What I’m afraid is that it will stop desiring paradox—the sort of beauty laced with melancholy. That it will want only what is flashy and bright and simple and so miss the complex longing of the ancient songs.

Our hearts are made for joy, yes, but also for sorrow, here on earth. More than that, our hearts reach out for the divine, and you may call me a heretic—many have—but I never experience God’s presence more than I do in hearing very old music and the silences in between.

And so I choose to believe that long after I am gone, if my academic work falls into obscurity and my musical society is unable to preserve the chants for the next generation, there will still be hope. Each year in December, one nearly-forgotten funeral procession will be sung in anticipation of the Saviour to whom all our liturgies and songs point to.

And I will rejoice in that as well.

(This is the first in a series of narratives based on the true origins of beloved Christmas carols. To learn more about Dr. Mary Berry, go here. To read the narratives of the nativity from the past two years, go here.)


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