An antiphon is a term we see in worship regularly. An antiphon is a refrain that is sung before (and sometimes after and during) a Psalm or other song, and it’s typically is a Bible verse or a historic liturgical text.
The origin of the O Antiphons is around the eighth century. In larger cities and monasteries, it was customary to have services daily (or several times a day), and in the seven days before Christmas Eve, it became a regular practice to sing the assigned O Antiphon before and after the Magnificat ( “My soul magnifies the Lord.”) at the evening Vespers service.
In the twelfth or thirteenth century, these antiphons were paraphrased into metrical, poetic verses which became the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
The initial O Antiphon, for Vespers on December 17:
O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.
For their 2016 debut recording Drop Down, Ye Heavens, the London-based student-formed choir Siglo de Oro commissioned a new set of O Antiphons from various British composers, sung in English and set for choir and saxophone. Here is Will Todd’s thrilling setting of “O Wisdom”:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who ord’rest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
— Rick Krueger
(Image: O Sapentia by Linda Witte Henke, Te Deum Designs)