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    a painting to three angels blowing trumpets

    Plough Music Series: Divine Light in the O Antiphons

    Music for Advent

    Joel Clarkson

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    The O Antiphons are a collection of short chants used in the last seven Vespers services of Advent in the Western Church tradition. Each begins with the invoking ‘O’, and then follows with a title of Christ: “O Sapientia” (Wisdom), “O Adonai” (Lord), “O Radix Jesse” (Root of Jesse), “O Clavis David” (Key of David), “O Oriens” (Dayspring), “O Rex Gentium” (King of Nations), and “O Emmanuel” (God with Us). Likely already part of Christian worship by the sixth century, the O Antiphons have brought countless Christians through the final days of Advent in preparation for the light of Christ’s arrival, and have found expression in a multitude of Christian denominational practices in the West, not least through the nineteenth-century hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which gathers all the O Antiphons into one declaration of praise. The hymn has become one of the most popular examples of Advent music, and has many settings, from contemporary hits for radio, to cathedral choirs, like this choral arrangement by Sarah MacDonald, performed under her baton by the Ely Cathedral Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks:

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    Though “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is perhaps the most well-recognized expression of these ancient antiphons, they have a rich history that dates back to the dawn of Christian worship, and, related to their nature as Vespers antiphons, draws on the rhythms of the liturgy of the hours. The antiphon for December 21st, the “O Oriens,” gives us a particularly evocative glimpse: in this antiphon for the shortest day of the year, the worshiper is recalled to Christ as the light of the world, through resplendent words that cast away the gathered dark. Here, CantArte Regensberg performs the ancient text in its plainchant form, as it appears in Roman Catholic liturgy:

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    Latin:

    O Oriens,
    splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
    veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

    English:

    O Morning Star,
    splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
    Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

    With its interspersion of day-light and Christ-light, the “O Oriens” particularly affirms the use of the O Antiphons during Vespers, the service of evening prayer, when the light of day is replaced with lamplight. The Christian practice of Evening Prayer emerged through the adaptation of an ancient liturgy found both inside and outside of Christian practice in antiquity, called the Lucernarium. In this rite of light, a hymn is sung at the moment the evening lamps are lit, a hymn which praises the consequent light as a divine occurrence that scatters the darkness and fills the night hours with unbroken illumination. Christians quickly adapted this custom to become a hymn of praise directed to Christ, both the source of creational light and the bringer of the light of salvation. The traditional hymn sung at the moment of the lighting of the lamps was the Phos Hilaron, or in English, “O Gladsome Light.” Bright, filled with wonder, and vividly attentive to the movement of Christ in and through the light of creation, the Phos Hilaron has survived at least sixteen centuries of Christian worship to enliven praise. In the Christian East, it has remained the quintessential hymn of Vespers, revisited by countless composers over time. Perhaps one of its most celebrated versions is found in Rachmaninoff’s liturgical masterpiece All-Night Vigil, performed here by the St Thomas Choir of Men & Boys, and directed by John Scott:

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    Russian to English Transliteration:

    Svete tihiy sviatïya slavï Bessmertnago,
    Ottsa nebesnago, Sviatago, Blazhennago,
    Iisuse Hriste.
    Prishedshe na zapad solntsa,
    videvshe svet vecherniy,
    poyem Ottsa, Sïna i Sviatago Duha, Boga.
    Dostoin yesi vo fsia vremena
    Pet bïti glasï prepodobnïmi,
    Sïne Bozhïy, zhïvot dayay,
    temzhe mir tia slavit.

    English translation:

    Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal One –
    the Heavenly Father, holy and blessed –
    O Jesus Christ!
    Now that we have come to the setting of the sun,
    and behold the light of evening,
    we praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God.
    Thou art worthy at every moment
    to be praised in hymns by reverent voices.
    O Son of God, Thou art the Giver of Life;
    therefore all the world glorifies Thee.

    Though there is no known direct connection between the fourth-century Phos Hilaron and the later emergence of the O Antiphons, it is not difficult to see the way in which the expectant praise of Vespers, arising out of an awareness of the in-breaking light of Christ, might find resonance in the hopeful posture that shapes the Advent season, a season celebrated in the very depths of winter. The “O Oriens” particularly expresses this ethos; as an antiphon of light placed on what amounts to the darkest day of the year, its imagery has captivated many composers, and the eloquence in the brief but potent text leaves room for a variety of affective interpretations.

    Arvo Pärt’s “O Morgenstern” takes a meditative approach to the text. As if gently awakening the listener to the breaking light of morning, Pärt’s mysterious, unresolved chordal textures shimmer out, and then fade back into silence. The light in Pärt’s setting is a glow of gentle disorientation, a luminance which, through warm and alluring dissonance, heartens even as it unsettles its listeners in the moments of pre-dawn darkness. Pärt’s interpretation of the “O Oriens” is mystical infusion inviting one into contemplation. Here, Paul Hillier directs the Theatre of Voices:

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    German text:

    O Morgenstern,
    Glanz des unversehrten Lichtes:
    Der Gerechtigkeit strahlende

    Sonne:
    o komm und erleuchte,
    die da sitzen in Finsternis,
    und im Schatten des Todes.

    In stark contrast is James Macmillan’s English setting, “O Radiant Dawn.” Here, MacMillan uses arresting, expressive harmonies that break over one like sudden blinding light. Rather than awakening hearts with quiet meditation, MacMillan’s work draws the listener into expectation, hope, and desire for the Incarnation of Christ. Here, the work is performed by the Baroque Chorus, under the direction of William Jon Gray:

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    English text:

    O Radiant Dawn, Splendor of eternal Light, Sun of Justice:
    come, shine on those who dwell in darkness
    and the shadow of death.
    Isaiah had prophesied,
    “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
    upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
    Amen.

    As we keep our Advent vigil in the dark days of winter, we experience these settings, whether in the simplicity of the plainchant or the magnificence of the polyphony, as a deepened prayer within our own hearts. As daylight shortens and the shadows linger, this ancient message is born anew within us – the singular, unassailable truth found in the words of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

    detail of Aurora Triumphans, a painting by Evelyn De Morgan

    Detail of Aurora Triumphans, a painting by Evelyn De Morgan, 1886 (Public Domain)

    Contributed By portrait of Joel Clarkson, award-winning composer, author and voiceover performer

    Joel Clarkson is a composer, author and voiceover performer.

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