Every day at Evening Prayer, (or Vespers), the Magnificat is accompanied by an antiphon which gives a particular focus to the celebration. From the 17th December a special sequence of antiphons is used, known as the ‘O Antiphons’. They are also used as the Gospel Acclamation during the Mass of each day. These ‘O Antiphons’ are of ancient origin, many writers suggest that Boethius in the fifth century knew of them.
There are seven ‘O Antiphons’ each addressing Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament:
O Sapientia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Holy Lord)
O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (Key of David)
O Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God-with-us)
The textual structure of each of the seven antiphons we now use is the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: ‘come and show us the way of prudence’, ‘come and save us with outstretched arm’, and so on. Likewise all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern. They are sung in Gregorian chant in the Second Mode, (one of the eight modes in Gregorian chant). This particular modal ethos is characterised a sense of fragility and yearning.
There is a climactic order in these antiphons In the first antiphon, ‘O Sapientia’, we take a backward flight into eternity to address Wisdom, the Word of God. In the second, ‘O Adonai’, we move from eternity to the time of Moses and the Law of Moses. In the third, ‘O Radix Jesse’, we have come to the time when God was preparing the line of David. In the fourth, ‘O Clavis David’, we have come to King David. In the fifth, ‘O Oriens’, we see that the line of David is elevated so that the peoples may look on a rising star in the east, and hence in the sixth, ‘O Rex Gentium’. we know that He is king of all the world of man. This brings us to the evening before the Vigil of Christmas, and before coming to the town of Bethlehem, we salute Him with the last antiphon ‘O’, ‘O Emmanuel’, God-with-us.
The illustration of the O Antiphons shown above is a page from a breviary for Dominican use, known as the ‘Breviary of Isabella of Castile’ (c.1497).
© The British Library. Add.MS.18851
O Radix Jesse
O Clavis David
O Rex Gentium
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of truth.
Isaiah 11:2-3; Isaiah 28:29
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm!
Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer! Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 11:10; Jeremiah 23: 5-6: Micah 5:1; Romans 15: 8-13; Revelation 5:1-5; Revelation 22:16
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 22:22; Isaiah 9:6.
O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 9:2; Luke 1:9; Hebrews 1:3; Malachi 4:2
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.
Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 28:16; Haggai 2:8; Ephesians 2:14; Genesis 2:7
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our King and Law-giver, desired of the nations and their salvation, come and save us, Lord our God.
Georgia Stevens, the Director of the Pius X School of Liturgical Music has written of the particular musical construction of the ‘O Antiphon’ chants taking the first, ‘O Sapientia’, as an example. Stevens points out that the use of the ‘episema’ and ‘ictus’ notation markings on the last syllables of the word ‘sapientia’, (wisdom), and ‘veni’, (come), give rise to an ‘expressed note’ characterised by being sung with ‘slight lingering and anticipation’. This, Stevens claims, set alongside the ‘consummate skill’ of the melody in the Second Mode, makes the ‘O Antiphons’ in their very musical structure speak of the yearning and joyful expectation of the Advent season.