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O Come, All Ye Faithful

Tune name: Adeste Fideles

According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, “The genesis of this universally loved Christmas hymn is shrouded in obscurity.” This delights my musicologist side because it is an invitation to go down the rabbit hole of what various scholars have theorized over the centuries. But it frustrates my practical side because so much of what is written about this carol is pure speculation.  What we do know, about this extremely popular carol published in about 650 English-language hymnals, is the following:

  • The first manuscript source of the carol is in Latin and is signed by John Francis Wade, a Catholic layman and copyist who lived in England until 1745 and then fled to France to escape the Jacobite rebellion. As the manuscript was found in England, it is likely from before 1745 and is generally thought to have been copied between 1740 and 1745.
  • There is an Air anglois (English Air) with the text “rage inutile!” (useless rage) in a comic opera produced in Paris in 1744 which bears a striking similarity to the carol. Parodying church music in comic opera was extremely common and reached a high point with John Gay and Christoph Pepusch’s The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728. If the opera’s music is indeed a parody, it means that the carol had to have been at least somewhat known to the public at the time, or else it wouldn’t have been a comic reference.
  • There is a record at the Dominican convent of St. Mary’s Priory, Dublin, of Adeste Fideles being sung in their chapel in 1748.
  • Adeste Fideles was printed in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant with both melody and bass line in London in 1782.
  • It was first printed in America in 1795, in Latin. The first English version in America was printed in 1801, in the second edition of The American Harmony, with a translation by Isaac Watts.
  • The English words that we sing today were first published in 1841 by Frederick Oakeley. Additional verses, which were not original to the Latin version, were translated by W.T. Brooke. The first line was originally translated, “Ye faithful, approach ye” which is a faithful translation of the Latin. But it somehow didn’t feel right, so Brooke revised it to “O come, all ye faithful.”
  • Since the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918, it has been sung immediately after the reading of John 1:1-14. Since at least the 1950s, the last verse has contained a striking chord at the beginning of the line “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing,” almost certainly put there by the music director Boris Ord. It was only published by David Willcocks in the early 1960s, but as Willcocks had been Ord’s organ scholar in the 1940s it is almost certain that he got the idea from his mentor. Apparently Willcocks wrote the descant for the penultimate verse on the train!  Willcocks’ fanfare for the carol, however, does not come from King’s, it comes from his association with the Bach Choir in London, and their annual Christmas carol concert at Royal Albert Hall with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble.

However, there are also many things that we do not know about this popular carol, the most obvious being who actually wrote it.  Wade was not a composer, he was a copyist, and while suggestions have been made including Handel and Thomas Arne (who wrote “Rule Britannia”) none of these have been substantiated.

Likewise, we do not know the author of the text.  Three of the Latin verses were added later by Abbé Étienne Jean François Borderies in 1822, and the translations usually found in English hymnals include at least some of both the original and additional verses.  The four-verse text from The English Hymnal follows:

O come, all ye faithful

Joyful and triumphant,

O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

Come and behold him

Born the King of angels;

O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

God of God,

Light of light,

Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;

Very God,

Begotten, not created;

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels,

Sing in exultation.

Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above,

“Glory to God

In the highest”:

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,

Born this happy morning; [or born for our salvation]*

Jesu, to thee be glory given:

Word of the Father,

Now in flesh appearing:

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

*alternate text when the carol is not sung on Christmas Day.

Further listening and viewing:  Latin version sung by Luciano Pavarotti, Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, and Les Disciples de Massenet, conducted by Franz-Paul Decker at Notre Dame cathedral in Montréal, 1978.  English version sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, organ scholar Hugh Maclean, conducted by Boris Ord, 1954.  English version, with fanfare, sung by the Bach Choir, Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, organist John Scott, conducted by Sir David Willcocks, 1980.