Tune My Heart: Part 1, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

Dec 15, 2019

All great orchestral concerts begin with a small but important musical moment. The concert master stands and the principal oboist continuously sounds A-440, until each player has tuned all the notes of their instrument to the frequency of that tone. Then the conductor takes the podium, lifts his or her arms, the concert begins, and the instruments resonate in pure clarity.

In the world of classical music, instrumentalists embrace disciplines like orchestral tuning, and singers adapt their postures to optimize vocal resonance, because to ignore these disciplines would allow impurities into the sound, compromising its clear resonance. A resonant sound is full, rich, and reverberating. Quiet sounds gain strength as they encounter spaces uniquely suited to vibrate with their frequencies. The human vocal chords produce very quiet sounds, which gain resonance in the unique design of the vocal tract (the throat and the oral and nasal cavities). When properly aligned, the vocal tract can resonate these small sounds with enough power to be heard above an entire orchestra. Resonances can even become so powerful that “detuning” is needed to reduce them. Acoustic testing has been a routine part of NASA’s rocket production for the past forty years. When not properly detuned, rockets can blow themselves apart with sound. A human standing near the pad of a spacecraft at take-off would be killed, not by heat, but by sound.

The disciplines of tuning and detuning are desperately needed in our own daily lives. We aren’t always able to choose the music we hear, and it can be difficult to “tune out” unwanted cacophony. Growing up, I (Laura) detested the distinct feeling of riding the school bus in the morning as the driver blasted the disgusting and inappropriate music of the mainstream pop station through the bus. At best the music was banal, at worst it was defiling. My friend Sarah, her sister, and my sister Jessica would join me in tuning these sounds out by singing songs together. God bless the poor children that didn’t have any reason to detest or tune out this music. I was grateful for the beautiful sounds we created in the band and choir rooms during the day. I became the morning announcer in high school so that I could choose the music that sounded over the school’s PA system myself. Even when we can’t control or even recognize the impact of the music we hear in the public sphere, we can and must take dominion of the music in our own homes, detuning our hearts from harmful messages. “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) Our homes can serve as places of rest and rejuvenation; silence and beautiful music.

We believe that the Christian home must actively tune its heart to the drama of salvation through the purposeful selection and experience of music that is itself tuned to the universal, seasonal, and dramatic analogues of our faith. While pop music often falls into the category of the banal, sacred classical works ring with multiple layers of meaning that merit and reward our attention and discussion. As we (the Councells) are in the process of creating traditions in our home and in our classrooms, we choose to guide our own musical consumption by listening to spiritually enriching works. The three works we chose this Advent season are “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; Part I of the Messiah; and the beautiful hymn “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”

The activity was leisure in its purest and best form. It helped us engage more fully with the beautiful music and text, but also recharged and refreshed us in a way that made us want to model this mode of musical enjoyment for our students. We then conducted an experiment with the students of Holy Trinity Classical School in Beaufort, South Carolina, asking them to listen to the works, consider the printed texts, and answer four questions to prepare for a discussion about the layers of meaning in the pieces.


The four layers of meaning which we explored together are the literal, the metaphorical/allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. For each work, we asked the students variations of the following corresponding questions:

1) What is most apparent to you from the music in terms of style, mood, or theme?
2) What does the imagery (including metaphors) suggest as to the larger symbolic meaning? How are these images embodied in the music? Is anything within this piece an allusion to a larger human myth or story?
3) What effect does the music have upon you? Do you feel or visualize anything? How is the pattern of both text and music encouraging you to act?
4) Does this speak to any larger truths or myths about humanity? Is there anything that suggests anything concerning the “why” of human nature—its end or form?

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.
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

[O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.]

[O come, Desire of nations, bring
All peoples to their savior king;
Thou Cornerstone who makest one;
Oh pity us, thy work begun.]

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

*Note: While the two bracketed verses are in the recording, they are a later addition and come in quite a few different forms.


The first piece we chose that is tuned to the universal, seasonal, and dramatic analogues of the faith is the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” At the surface level, this piece is hauntingly minor, maintains an unrelenting regularity of rhythm, and is filled with words of a deeply prophetic nature referencing the history of the Jews. Our classroom discussion of the literal components included observations on the yearning and swirling sounds of the melodies in each verse, and the contrast of the major exclamations “Rejoice, rejoice!”

It is a testament to the inferencing faculty of the human mind that not a single student looked at the text and asked, “Why is this a Christian hymn?” The images and metaphors, developed chronologically throughout the verses, initially seem to be solely Jewish in content—going as they do from the captivity in Egypt to the entrance into the Promised Land. The Davidic and Messianic variation on these metaphors transports the hymn into a New Testament context. “Emmanuel,” not Moses, is coming to ransom his people; and the “rod of Jesse,” not Aaron’s rod, is what will free them from “Satan’s tyranny.” While the last stanza seems to be out of order, so to speak, the phrase “O come Adonai, Lord of Might / Who to thy tribes . . . didst give the law” wraps up this transfiguration and states that “Israel’s God is ours”; no law is presented to us on the mountain of God, but God Himself will dwell with us (Ezek. 37, Rev. 21). The rising exultation of the chorus, speaks to us of the overarching context of the lived experience of the Israelites, and of all fallen people; that though we have a promised messiah, we are still without Him. We are captive, oppressed, darkened, exiled, and those who still tremble at the mountain that “can be touched with hands” (Heb. 12:18).

The piece’s musical nature is one that unifies and directs us to share in the sufferings of others. Just as the texts serve to unify a people in their common experience of suffering and hope for salvation, the musical setting serves to expand that unity, allowing the church at large to participate and engage in what is essentially a pre-incarnation experience. The plaintive and mournful theme is embodied in the ascending minor triad of the opening melody of the verses, all of which begin with the plea “O come.” The refrain of “Rejoice, rejoice!” launches the melody up to its highest point and outlines a major triad. One student noted that she straightened up and lifted her head a bit when listening. We discussed the standard stance for creating pure vocal sound, often referred to in vocal pedagogy, as the “noble posture,” by which the natural alignment of our bodies allows for a beautiful ringing resonance. The simplicity of the hymn’s form with its repeating, unornamented melodies is accessible to people of various levels of musical skill. The simplicity of these two tonal centers guides us to feel the solemnity of suffering, and the hope of rescue. Just as the text has been translated into English, the experience of the Jewish people has been translated by the music into the experience of all Christians.

The universality of this experience serves to awaken and unite the heart with all those who have ever been hopeful, yet helpless and suffering while waiting for the day, or hero, of their salvation. At first, the best example that we could use to convey the significance of the piece’s meaning was to reference the feeling evoked in the scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where the dwarves sit around Bilbo’s fire singing “Far over the misty mountains cold / to dungeons deep and cavern old . . .” There seems to be something deeply human in singing of our losses and of our hope of eventual restoration. To this end, “the desire of all nations” is what truly is embodied in the person of Emmanuel. There have been many people whose “hope deferred [has made] the heart sick.” As we listen or participate in this piece, we are reminded of the helpless, oppressed, and those who have cried out by sea, land, and air, “God help me!” In our day, when it is tempting and easy to disconnect and look away from injustice, this music helps us connect and empathize in solidarity with one another. We hope and rejoice with all oppressed people; “Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

As we seek to understand the soul of these great works, our hearts resonate with the rich layers of meaning which draw us into the wonder and glory of the divine birth. The music came alive to us as we discussed our favorite aspects together. We found ourselves more able to engage with the spiritual metaphors that surround us, and tune out some of the cacophony also present. We hope that you’ll consider engaging with these works with us this season, or consider the layers of meaning in your own favorite music. In our next article, we’ll outline the beautiful layers of meaning present in Part I of Handel’s Messiah!

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Jonathan and Laura Councell

Jonathan and Laura Councell

Jonathan and Laura Councell are classical educators in Beaufort, South Carolina. Jonathan is a graduate of the CiRCE Apprenticeship, serves as chair of the humanities at Holy Trinity Classical Christian School, consults, trains teachers, and writes curriculum. Laura earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from UNC Greensboro. She has a private voice studio, teaches music at USC Beaufort, and tutors in Romance languages. During the summer, Jonathan and Laura run the Classical Arts in France program. In the fall, they host an epic Hobbit party. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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