2016-11-27 Notes from the Bench

“Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” by Lindsay Lafford

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has inspired numerous choral and instrumental works. Today, our choirs will sing a setting by Sir Lindsay Lafford (1912-2014), a composer who lived in the Phoenix area from 1994 until his death in 2014. “O come, O come, Emmanuel”—words that will resound through these coming four weeks of Advent. The text for this well-known and beloved Advent hymn is based on the “O” Antiphons, the antiphons for the Magnificat used at Vespers beginning on December 17 until Christmas Eve. Each antiphon is a title for the Messiah and refer to the prophecy of Isaiah of the Messiah’s coming: Sapientia (Wisdom), Adonai (God), Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), Clavis David (Key of David), Oriens (Morning Star), Rex Gentium (King of Nations), and Emmanuel (God with us). Fr. William Saunders presents the theory, although it may simply be a coincidence, that the medieval Benedictine monks arranged the antiphons in a manner so that if you take first letter of each one (in reverse order), the Latin words ERO CRAS are formed, which means “tomorrow, I will come,” or “tomorrow I will be.” The early hymn-text version of the “O” Antiphons appeared in a 1710 German hymnal, Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum. The version of this hymn that appears in many American hymnals is based on a translation by the Anglican priest and hymn-writer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866). The tune, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, is a fifteenth-century French processional melody.

Lindsay Lafford, Lord of Ridley, was born in Gloucester, England. His initial music training was singing as a chorister and an organ scholar at Hereford Cathedral. From 1935 until 1939, he was the organist and director of music for St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong. Lafford emigrated to the United States in 1939 and held positions as a teacher and organist at Haverford and Swarthmore colleges, and Princeton University. He served the United States Navy as a chaplain’s assistant and director of music during World War II. Lafford became a naturalized citizen in 1946. From 1948 until his retirement in 1979, Lafford was a professor of music, organist, carillonneur at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Following retirement, Lafford concentrated on composition, and spent the next three and a half decades writing music. Lafford moved to Tempe, Arizona in 1994. He remained active as a musician, playing piano and organ at Friendship Village, continued composing music, and conducted performances of his works. In 1988, he received the title, “Lord of Ridley” and in 2008, he was awarded the Ageless Heroes of Arizona award for Creative Expression.

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