For about as long as I can remember, my favorite Christmas carol has been “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
Today, as I listened to an instrumental version scored in a baroque style, I had an insight as to why I have such fondness for the piece. Partly, the appeal is the antiquity of the tone: the carol is quite old, veni veni featuring in sacred songs as far back as 8th-century antiphons, though most sources I’ve checked cite the version we know as dating from the 12th-15th c.
Hence its minor key and simple “sing-ability.” I’m not a good singer myself, but I can sing this carol. The range works for most of us.
But that wasn’t what struck me this morning as the music surrounded me in my car en route to work. What I noticed—felt, in my marrow—is the sense of yearning in this carol. There is something particularly human in the minor-key longing for release, relief, joy, escape, liberty, union with a beloved other, desire that is both physical and spiritual, the yearning for renewal. Not hope but the desire, the longing for hope.
This sense resides in the tune itself, not just in the words of the carol whether Latin or French or English. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” in the text I know best is translated by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin, yet the heart-breaking anticipation this carol captures for me has less to do with the rephrasing of Isaiah than with the poignancy of the musical prayer it evokes in me. A sigh, a wisp of possible exultation that is not exactly a promise I can understand but which stays inside me waiting to be awakened.
For various reasons, that yearning for hope resonates with me this year. And always.
I recall once when we were in the car with Maga. You were three or four years old. We were singing carols as we rode along. Maga, you recall, had a beautiful soprano voice.
You made a request: Maga, sing that ah ah a a, ah, ah a a song (it was the gloria from “Angels We Have Heard on High”). Perhaps this is the wisp of possible exaltation waiting to be awakened. She surely wakened it in you that night.
Oh, to be a very young child again. Thanks, Dad!
But exaltation differs from exultation, and I chose the latter specifically for its denotation of joy rather than rapture.
This has always been my favorite too, Ann, and I think you may have hit on why. I think yearning is a very emotional and beautiful thing–it keeps us alive. Thanks for this post.
Thanks. A friend pointed out that this is less a Christmas carol and more of an Advent-season carol…which is another indicator of the yearning.
I feel it is appropriate for any time of year when one feels that heartfelt sense of longing.
Readers, check out Kathryn’s blog (Healing through Writing)!
[…] Buber, C. S. Lewis and Emily Dickinson, weighing the benefits of Lawn vs. meadow, and a doe, or musing on the appeal of the Christmas carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: I’m not a good singer myself, but I can sing this carol. The range works for most of […]