Review: "O Emmanuel" by J.J. Wright

An album of Advent and Christmas music incorporating chant, hymnody, and jazz, performed by a children’s choir, a quartet of adult singers, traditional chamber instruments, and a jazz ensemble.

On paper (or on screen), this combination is perhaps more suggestive of avant-garde performance art than reverent sacred music. But the new album O Emmanuel brings this unlikely ensemble together in a spiritually edifying and musically thrilling way. Featuring music written and performed by Grammy-winning composer, conductor, and pianist J.J. Wright (along with the Notre Dame Children’s Choir and Fifth House Ensemble), O Emmanuel is an exciting demonstration of the ways in which sacred music can bring together seemingly disparate styles not only from the Church’s long musical tradition but also from more recent developments in Western music, as Wright describes here in his interview with Church Life Journal.

Like the Advent season itself, O Emmanuel is full of surprises. The album begins with “Gabriel’s Message,” an Advent hymn narrating the Annunciation event that deserves to be much more broadly known than it is. Here, Wright’s inventive instrumentation takes center stage: the suspended sparseness of pizzicato strings suggest the baited breath with which the universe awaited the Virgin’s answer to the angel’s message, and swirling cascades in the woodwinds evoke the movement of the Holy Spirit as it overshadowed the handmaid of the Lord.

Following this epigrammatic introductory piece, Wright’s composition O Emmanuel unfolds over nine movements, leading the listener on a journey from Advent, beginning with each of the seven O Antiphons being treated in turn, to Christmas, concluding with settings of the hymn Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is Born) and the angelic proclamation “Glory to God in the highest.” Each movement incorporates chant, hymnody, and jazz in varying combinations, degrees, and styles, and several movements feature additional poetic texts from sources like the Liturgy of the Hours and Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers. The result is a rich mosaic of words and music, a feast for the ears and the imagination.

A particularly striking example of this juxtapositional technique is found in the third movement of O Emmanuel, “Radix.” This movement combines the O Antiphon “O Radix Jesse”—“O Root of Jesse”—with the text of the beloved Christmas hymn Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. The combination of the O Antiphon with the Christmas hymn pairs Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy with its typological, Christological interpretation: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is 11:1). Wright further clarifies this theological interpretation through his musical setting: the complicated choral writing gives way and the choir sings the words “true man yet very God” in a powerful unison. Even though the medium of jazz-infused chant combined with a familiar Christmas hymn might be new and different to the listener, the message remains unchanging. Hearing Wright’s combination of the O Antiphon with Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming affirms for the listener that Jesus is the root that brings life to the stump of Jesse, the shoot that sprouts from it and the bud that blossoms forth from it, “when half spent was the night.”

The other movement in O Emmanuel that deserves particular attention is the sixth movement, “Rex.” This O Antiphon, O Rex Gentius, is translated in Christian Prayer as follows:

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man,
come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

In this movement, though, Wright has set not the original Latin text of the O Antiphon or even an English translation; rather, he has set a 2012 poem by Malcom Guite, an Anglican priest-poet and singer-songwriter based in Cambridge. Guite’s poem incorporates phrases from the O Antiphon text and turns them on their heads, giving us a stark reminder that Jesus’ kingship will be one of suffering, that he will reign not from a throne but from the Cross.
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.

The text concludes with a hope-filled invocation, a plea to this suffering King to “come to us now and find in us your throne.” Whereas in the third movement the combination of the O Antiphon and the Christmas hymn provided a theological commentary, in this movement, Wright’s choice to set Guite’s poem and not the original O Antiphon provides a theological commentary on what it means to say that Jesus—Emmanuel—is the King of the nations. Once again, this theological commentary is affirmed in the music itself: Wright’s choral writing at the movement’s outset is at once accusatory and sorrowful; a somber snare drum evokes the image of one being marched to the gallows; and as the music transitions to the heartfelt warmth of a slow gospel waltz, the hope of the poem’s conclusion is given voice.

Though there is more to be said about the individual movements of O Emmanuel (the piece’s conclusion provides another musically stunning moment), it is perhaps most beneficial to consider what the piece offers as a whole. First of all, Wright has done something that many would consider ill-advised at best or impossible at worst: he has brought together musical strands that seem to have nothing to do with each other, and in so doing, have made them resonate anew. One immediately gains the sense of Wright’s own rootedness in the traditions of chant and hymnody and jazz by the facility and seamlessness with which he transitions from one style to the other and even makes them work simultaneously.

Second, and perhaps more important, Wright has demonstrated that this kind of musical fusion is indeed possible, but only when all of the musicians participating in it are operating at the highest level of excellence in their performance. J.J. Wright has painstakingly crafted a simply excellent piece of music, and his performance on the piano throughout the album is exceptionally good. The Notre Dame Children’s Choir has been trained in singing chant beautifully, and their mastery of that difficult repertoire has made it possible for them to master the difficulty of the jazz passages as well. The musicians from Fifth House Ensemble, too, are at the top of their game, making this incredibly difficult music sound effortless to perform.

Overall, O Emmanuel offers something familiar in a new way, inviting listeners to pray and contemplate the coming of Christ in a musical language that might at first seem implausible, but can—when heard with an open ear and a ready imagination—offer a new way in, not only to the season of Advent but also to the mystery of the Incarnation itself.

Listen to tracks from O Emmanuel on Spotify

Album artwork courtesy of J.J. Wright.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

Read more by Carolyn Pirtle