In going through my Cokesbury Hymnal this Christmas season, I’ve enjoyed playing some of my favorite carols. I’m struck by how rousing and jubilant they are, like “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
A third could be added to that list of upbeat, glorious carols: “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
I have not written a post about the song itself, though I did allude to it in “Stop Amending the Classics, Bring Back Melody” last December. In that post, I complained that an additional modern chorus added to “O Come, All Ye Faithful” cause the congregation to go “from a lusty chorus of socially-distanced congregants to a few people mumbling along to the tuneless new chorus.” You can’t improve upon the classics! I also referenced the carol in another post in the context of my niece singing along to the tune with gusto when she was three-years old.
Regardless, it is such a classic carol. The chorus is iconic, with its stepwise melody suddenly jumping down a fourth and then up a sixth (“O come let us adore Him / O come let us adore Him”; bold indicates the pitches I’m referencing). The opening of each verse is rousing, too, with that same fourth interval, followed by a drop of a fifth. Dropping from the A in the melody to the E reinforces the key of A major powerfully, and the E7 in the second measure further reinforces the strong I-V-I relationship of the tune, giving it something of that grandiose, glorious feel.
The origins of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” are a bit murky, though the carol was once called “Adestes Fideles” (and is often still listed as such in some hymnals), the Latin title for the four Latin verses written in the eighteenth century by John Francis Wade. Indeed, the music from my Cokesbury Hymnal attributes it to “Wade’s Cantus Diversi,” with the translation by Frederick Oakley, an English Catholic priest. Oakley’s translation dates to 1841, ninety years after Wade’s lyrics from 1751.
That said, there is some debate about who composed the music, if not the lyrics. The attributions range from Wade to Handel to King John IV of Portugal. Those are all tantalizing possibilities (especially the idea that the King of Portugal could have written it), but we simply don’t know for sure. Wade’s version from his Cantus Diversi is the first published copy; whether he copied the melody or imitated the work of other composers of the late Baroque/early Classical period is unclear. Of course, it’s entirely possible he composed it himself, and speculating otherwise does a bit of a disservice to the man himself.
Regardless, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is fun to sing—and play! Give it a try.