O Antiphons [Great Antiphons]
- Richard Sherr
In present-day liturgy a set of seven antiphons to the Magnificat, each text beginning with the exclamation ‘O’: ‘O sapientia’, ‘O adonai’, ‘O radix Jesse’, ‘O clavis David’, ‘O oriens’, ‘O Rex gentium’, ‘O Emmanuel’. One of these is sung on each of the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (see AM, 208–11). In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the number of antiphons was sometimes as many as 12, with added texts such as ‘O virgo virginum’ (the most popular), ‘O Gabriel’, ‘O Thomas Didyme’, ‘O Rex pacifice’ and ‘O Hierusalem’ (for example, a sequence of 11 antiphons beginning on 13 December is found in the 11th-century manuscript GB-Lbl Harl.2961). It would appear, however, that the first seven were conceived as a separate entity. For one thing, the texts of all seven follow the same basic pattern, first addressing Christ by different titles (‘Wisdom’, ‘Key of David’ etc.), then begging him to come to us (‘Veni’). Perhaps more striking is the acrostic that results when the first letters of the antiphons are read in reverse order: ‘ero cras’ (‘tomorrow I will be with you’), appropriate to the Advent season....