O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This setting of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was among my first exposures to the compositional style of Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, and it remains for me a fine example of Alice’s way of thinking about arranging. I sang it hundreds of times with my caroling group in the late ’90s.

(Here’s the Robert Shaw Chorale recording.)

Note the emphasis on the melody at the start and throughout – unison bass voices, unison treble voices, unison bass voices for the first half of each verse. On the refrain, the harmony blossoms into three part TTB on the first and third verses, and SATB homophony on the middle verse.

My favorite part, though, is the way she “harmonizes” the second and third verses over the unison melody. In the second, Alice made the lovely discovery that the melody could be augmented rhythmically to produce a countermelody. Listen just to the bass voices starting at around 0:52 – it’s the same melody, just slower, until the very end.) This is so Alice – harmony is resultant, never the first thought.

In the third verse (1:39), she crafts a beautiful rhythmic counter-rhythm in the treble voices, spinning away on just the words “O Come” – the core text of the piece, repeated for emphasis. It reminds me of the Hallelujahs in the later part of her setting of “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal” – a mantra of sorts on just one textual element. Note, too, that the repetition allows her to find some striking dissonance without challenging the ear – because, again, the harmony is resultant of strong melodic material in all voices.

I love this setting of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for its sparkling clarity, its avoidance of unnecessary complexity, its intentional focus on text and melody. For me, it’s a prime example of the elements that form the core of Alice Parker’s compositional style.