“White As Snow,” No Line On The Horizon, U2

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:30 pm

I’ve been playing U2‘s latest album No Line On The Horizon in my car for the past few days. I still haven’t gotten all the way through it, despite having downloaded the music from iTunes quite a while ago. But it’s really intriguing. I think it’ll take me a few listens to really get into it, but I like what I’ve heard so far.

The song I want to mention today, before I do a full review of the album, is “White As Snow,” track nine (you can hear a sample on the Amazon product page). I was listening to it for the first time yesterday, but the melody sounded familiar to me. It only took me a few moments to realize that (for the verses, at least) the melody is a slightly-altered version of the Christmas carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” It fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the song, and the lyrics, which are evocative and filled with longing.

The melody of the carol, of course, is public domain; ideas on when it was written range from the 8th century to the 15th. But it’s interesting that the band chose to use that melody for a new song having nothing to do with the original carol. I’m aware of several instances of new music being written to old lyrics (for example, the Indelible Grace Music project or my own new music to the hymn “Just As I Am”); but I’m not sure I know of new lyrics being written to old music. How about you? What do you think of “White As Snow,” and do you know of any other examples of new lyrics using an old melody?



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    Idhrendur on 07.08.2009

    I’m shocked at myself for not noticing that. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is my absolute favorite Christmas Carol.

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    Mark Harbison on 07.08.2009

    I feel like it does have something to do with the original carol . . . metaphorically, at least. “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” obviously, is about Israel, hopeless and captive, and waiting for their savior. “White As Snow” seems to me to be about a person who feels the same way—who once “knew there was a love divine,” feeling saved and forgiven, but who now is unable to forgive himself for something, and feels alone and captive. He’s not sure that he believes that Emmanuel can save him, even were he to come, but there’s still a sense of longing for that salvation and kind of a desperate belief that only Emmanuel can do it—so therefore, the words are new, because the situation is later and different (while similar), but the music is the same because the longing and need is the same.

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    Mark on 07.11.2009

    I read this item yesterday on the song: http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=268196&sc=84

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    ajharbison on 07.13.2009

    Thanks for your comments, all!

    Mark 1: I think you’re right–the feel and the longing are the same. Which is why it makes a great melody for that song.

    Mark 2: Interesting article–thanks for sharing!

    AJ Harbison

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