We find ourselves this week in the midst of Great Advent – where leading to Christmas, we mark each day with a new O Antiphon at Vespers. This has long been a special tradition at our Community, and this year we’ve had the privilege and enjoyment of sharing and teaching about these on two different chant retreats – one here at the Community of Jesus and one in Barga, Italy. Several people coming on retreat said the O Antiphons were one of the biggest reasons they decided to attend.
So much has been said and taught over the years about these pieces. Many already know the history and would recognize the melody, and yet there is something so rich about joining in this tradition. Dating back to as early as the 6th century, these antiphons draw us in, with a life of their own as they recount the many names and attributes of the coming Christ. The melody has a yearning feel – mode II, it reaches up at the start, descends back down and then grows and ascends with a minor, modal sounding plea – come and free us, do not delay!
One thing that I think touched members on our retreats was to see the most ancient manuscript we know of with these pieces – a manuscript from the 10th century written by a monk from St. Gallen, Switzerland named Hartker. To us this looks like some text and many “squiggles” but to the monks of that day these squiggles were a musical language alive to them which simply expressed the melodies they knew.
Each antiphon having the same tune, they help us to focus on the importance of the words. Let us ponder these with a new life this year….
O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O God with Us…