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O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Apology:  I know I promised my next song would be “Where Can I Turn for Peace.”  It’s just not coming together quickly.  Normally, I’d just take the time to do it right, but my wife and I have just begun a temple mission here in Santiago, Chile, and have not even finished unpacking yet.  I had been saving this one for Christmas, as many consider it a Christmas Carol, which it is not (see History below).

The tab:

This is written as a duet for two guitars, but I originally intended it as a duet with another kind of instrument.  I think it would sound especially good with a violin, cello, flute, or woodwind.  Since these all play in different keys, I didn’t know whether to write the guitar part in Am or Em, so I did it in both.  Then I realized that you could also get an interesting effect by playing both versions together, with the Em part played with a capo to put them in the same key.  Hence, the duet version.  If you just want to play it as a solo, or to accompany singers, I recommend the Am version (upper staff).  It’s easier, and just as pretty, and there are no hard transitions and only one barre chord.  In fact, it’s one of the easier songs I know.  If the barred Amv is too hard for you, substitute the regular Am as in the last measure of the previous line.  It won’t sound quite as good, but the audience won’t know.

There are a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.  Please don’t leave them out, as they contribute greatly to the beauty of the song.  Despite the large number of such ligado techniques, the slow, regular tempo makes this an ideal vehicle for learning them, so I have listed the difficulty level as “beginner to intermediate”.  There are no unusual chords in the upper staff, but there are a few melody notes that are not part of the chords being played.  Watch for them.

In the 4th measure, fret the D note on the 2nd string with the little finger.  In the second measure of the third line, make the slide with the ring finger, for strength.  The little finger probably will not be strong enough.  In the last line before the Finale, there’s a mordant.  This is a technical music term meaning to slide the note up to the next note and back down again.  It counts as one beat of the tempo.  Do it with the middle finger, then pull off the third string, all in one fluid phrase.  It’s not hard to do, and sounds fantastic.  If you tend to speed up during this maneuver, play it with a metronome.  There are several good metronome apps available free on the internet.  Some are even abailable as phone apps.

The song, as usually sung, has seven verses, but since this is an instrumental solo, you can include as many or as few as you like.  After the last verse, play the Finale.  It sounds much like a repetition of the last line, but there are differences.  Play it about half speed, for emphasis.

The lower staff is in the key of Em.  If you’re playing it as a guitar duet, place the capo in the 5th space.  If you’re playing with some other instrument, or with singers, put the capo wherever you need to.  This version is a bit harder than the upper staff, and contains a couple of barre chords.  The G (7)  chord is actually easier than it looks.  It’s a normal G chord, but since you’re not playing the 1st string anyway, you can fret it as if it were a G7, which makes the transition faster.


This lovely, medieval melody, from the early Middle Ages, may be more than 1000 years old.  Like other very old songs, even the century of composition is not known for sure.  Most authorities place it around the Twelfth Century, but it could well be based on Gregorian chants and “plainsong” (unaccompanied singing) of the Eighth or Ninth Century.  Others point out that it did not achieve its present form until much later, possibly as “recently” as the late 1400s.

The lyrics are based on a Catholic chant usually sung at evening prayer (“Vespers”), in which the leader calls out one of the seven names of Christ in the New Testament, and the choir responds.  The seven verses of the poem correspond to these seven names, except that the last one, Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”) has been moved to the first position in the hymn.

Like many other hymns, the lyrics were originally sung to other tunes than the one we now associate with it.  The present tune has been associated with the hymn for centuries, so long that the tune has taken on the name of the chant, “Veni, veni” (“O come, o come” in Latin).  Until it was translated into English scarcely 150 years ago, it was known by the Latin title.  The English title is an exact translation.  Latin customs in writing titles used capital letters only at the beginning of the first word, and for names and references to Deity, so English writers who wish to appear authentic follow that convention, and may also spell “Oh” as just the letter O, but it’s okay to modernize the spelling if you wish.  Since the song has been around so long, and no one knows how it originally went anyway, it’s also perfectly acceptable to arrange the music to suit yourself.  It’s definitely in the Public Domain.

Here are the verses, in the most popular English translation, done by John Mason Neale in 1851:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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