At our evensong on Saturday 2 December at 5pm, featuring the Ešenvalds Merton College Service, we will be singing another piece by Ešenvalds, ‘O Emmanuel’, as the anthem. In this composition Ešenvalds takes the plainchant of the great Advent antiphon ‘O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster’ and gives it almost unadorned to a soloist, while the choir accompanies with evocative, a capella harmonies.
‘O Emmanuel’ is the last in a series of great antiphons, which in the monastic tradition are sung before and after the Magnificat in the office of Vespers, in the lead-up to Christmas. Taking the second word of each antiphon (they all start with ‘O’), namely Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and finally Emmanuel, and arranging the initial letters in reverse order, forms the acrostic ‘ero cras’, ‘tomorrow I will come’, making the great antiphons a kind of mediaeval advent calendar!
The great antiphons are ancient, dating from the 7th or 8th centuries, drawing their texts from prophecies in the book of Isaiah. By the 12th century they had been compiled into a hymn, which, set to another plainchant, is very familiar to us today: ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’.