"Antiphon" is a word transliterated from Greek words that mean "opposite voice". What does this mean? Or for you non-Lutherans, what does that mean?
The Original Antiphon.
Well, originally, which is to say in ancient Greek music theory, it means something sung on both a given pitch and also an octave higher, like C and the next C on a piano. That's antiphonia, as distinct from symphonia, singing in unison, or paraphonia, singing on a pitch and a fifth higher, like C to G on a piano.
Doesn't seem to describe what we mean by antiphon, does it? So how did we get from what the word actually meant to what we mean by it now?
What Happened Next.
It all starts with the Psalms. They aren't just texts, they're lyrics, all that survives of musical compositions whose music is lost. They have a parallelism in structure that suggests they may well have been performed by alternating singers or groups of singers. As Christian worship emerged from the synagogue, that's exactly what how the Psalms were done, performed by alternating choruses. Oh well then there you go, alternating choruses so they called them antiphons, right?
Not right. They were not called antiphons from alternating choruses, but because the adult males were joined by boys, hence it was called antiphonia, because the boys sang an octave higher than the adult males, just like the term means.
Then, by about the 300s, they started adding another verse, generally a related Scripture verse, to each Psalm, sung by all before, and generally after, each Psalm verse or two. Before you know it, antiphon doesn't have a bloody thing to do with octaves that it really means, but is associated with the idea of two alternating choruses singing back and forth, and also, the added prefatory text and tune began to be called antiphon all by itself.
Confused? It gets worse, or better, as you may see it. Books containing the texts to the sung parts of the Mass came to be called antiphonales, and books containing texts to the spoken part of the Mass were called lectionaries, literally, stuff that is read, not sung. Then, antiphonale came to mean a book of chants for the Divine Office (Matins, Vespers, Compline etc) as distinct from a graduale, a book of the chants for Mass.
Enough to drive you nuts, or reach for the St Louis Jesuit stuff, huh? A word that means at the octave means alternating choruses except when it means added prefatory verses unless you mean the book of chants for Divine Office. Don't worry, took me a while to catch on too.
Some say antiphonal singing of the Psalms started with St Ignatius of Antioch, who was an Apostolic Father and traditionally is said to have been a student of St John the Apostle. It really only caught on in the Western Church with St Ambrose, who compiled an antiphonale, yeah that word again and here with a different meaning yet, that being a collection of stuff suitable for antiphonal, as in alternating choruses, singing.
The "O" Antiphons.
OK. Now to the "O" antiphons -- antiphon here in the sense of the prefatory text itself. There are various versions in various places going back centuries, so far that my man Boethius mentions the practice. Boethius was born the same year as St Benedict, founder of the grand and glorious Order of St Benedict, the SOBs, I mean OSBs, as well as of the wider even grander and gloriouser "Benedictine tradition" found cited in all the recruiting material of universities sponsored by the Benedictines, like the one I graduated from. (A false comparative and a dangling participle in the same sentence: we Benedictines may not always follow the rules but we know what the hell they are.) That would be 480 or thereabouts, in case you got lost there.
Boethius died in 524 or 525, depending on who's counting. It would have been later except the Western Roman Emperor, Theodoric the Great, who was an Arian Christian, had him executed on grounds of treason for conspiring with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justin I, who was orthodox and catholic, as distinct from Orthodox and Catholic because we all know he'd be Missouri Synod Lutheran to-day. While he was awaiting execution he wrote his most famous work, On the Consolation of Philosophy. You can read a lot more about all this in a post I added in 2011, called Boethius, Terence, Wheel of Fortune, posted a little before 23 October, the feast of St Boethius in some places. Why is my namesake Terence, who'd be my patron saint except he ain't a saint or even Christian, in there? Because he had a lot to say about Fortuna, the goddess who is the "fortune" in Rota Fortuna, or Wheel of Fortune, that Boethius takes up.
OK Now the "O" Antiphons.
But I digress. Some form or another of "O" antiphons have been around for almost the entire history of the church. The Biblical basis is Isaiah 7:14, which, in case you're a little rusty, is the famous verse "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (English Standard Version 2001).
This verse is held to be prophecy of the Messiah and Jesus is its fulfillment. By Christians. In Hebrew, what is rendered as "virgin" is (transliterated) "almah", which is the sixth of seven stages of growing up ("elem" is the male form), and denotes a young female past puberty and marriageable, presumably a virgin since unmarried. In the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible for Jews who spoke Greek, the common language of education, commerce, etc in the world they knew, and which was adopted by the Christian church, the Greek word used to translate almah is (transliterated) "parthenos", and means virgin.
Hey wait a minute, ain't there a big ancient Greek temple by that name? Yeah, sort of. That's the Parthenon, it's in Athens and was the temple of the city's patroness, the goddess Athena, one of whose epithets (a descriptive nickname) is Parthenos, applied to Athena as she had no husbands, consorts or lovers. and a parthenon is where a parthenos lives.
There's a big and long-standing controversy about whether parthenos really translates almah, and also whether the prophecy has any application beyond telling Judah's King Ahaz that before this woman's son is grown he will have defeated his enemies (this is about eight centuries before Jesus) . But that's not the subject here so I won't even bring it up.
Anyway, of the various versions of the O Antiphons it was the Benedictines who arranged what has become the standard one. One antiphon each at Vespers each day from 17 through 23 December, right up to Christmas Eve. Each one starts with a salutation of Christ by "O" and a verse on one of attributes in Isaiah Christians consider to apply to the Messiah, culminating in God-with-us, Jesus. In order, they are:
O Sapientia (Wisdom),
O Adonai (Lord),
O Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse),
O Clavis David (Key of David),
O Oriens (Morning Star),
O Rex gentium (King of the Nations),
O Emmanuel (God With Us).
Now, it's Advent, right, and late in it, and about to be Christmas. So looky here -- starting with the last antiphon, from the day before Christmas Eve, go back each day and put the first letter of each attribute of Christ to-gether and what do you get? Ero cras, that's what. Latin, and guess what that means in English -- I will be (there) to-morrow! Benedictines man, are we good or WHAT! The whole series sums up the Advent preparation then concludes it, right down to a Psalm-like acrostic in the titles!
Never heard of such a thing? Sure you have. We sing it all the time! No monks or Vespers needed (though if you're fortunate enough to be in a parish that has Vespers, don't miss it, no monks needed for Vespers!). The popular Advent/Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" (often sung in Latin as Veni, veni Emmanuel, and for God's sake don't say VAY-nee as WAYNE-ee) is a composite of the whole O Antiphon series! The hymn text is of obscure origin, paraphrases of the O Antiphons date back to the 800s, and a translation of it by John Mason Neale, an Anglican "priest" and all around helluva a guy, was paired with a pre-existing tune also of obscure origin, resulting in the hymn as we have it now, by Thomas Helmore in 1851.
O what an antiphon! Enjoy!
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