“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” is a German hymn first printed in 1582. Written anonymously under the title “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” this song originally had about 19 stanzas. As we’ve seen, those Germans really love their long songs. In 1599 they even bumped it up to 23, but these days it’s usually trimmed down to 5 or 6. A lot of hands have been involved in the transmission and translation of the words to the hymn. In the 19th cent., Theodore Baker gave us the first two stanzas in English, translating from the German original. Friedrich Layritz wrote two more stanzas around the same time, and these have been translated by Harriett R. Spaeth. John C Mattes added another stanza in 1914. Catherine Winkworth even got involved by translating a variant version of the hymn. There were so many different options because of all those earlier stanzas, quite a bit of source material I’d say, and because of the fact that this hymn has been theologically redacted in a big way. Most of us assume the “Rose” is Jesus. That’s how our current English versions present it, and I bet you’ve never thought a thing about it. But that’s actually not what the original meant. You see, the Rose used to be Mary!
Yes, Mary, the pure Rosebud, flower among women, rosa mystica, the lily of the valleys– she was the original focus of this song. There’s a long history of using the Rose as an image for Mary. The medieval commentators interpreted Song of Solomon 2:1 as referring to Mary (don’t ask me how that ever made sense, it was mystical). To those early audiences, the allusion would have been standard fare. A few examples of the original are, “A rose has sprung up, from a tender root… And it has brought forth a floweret.” The “floweret” is the offspring of the “rose.” The second stanza makes it very clear, “The rosebud that I mean, Of which Isaiah told, Is Mary, the pure. Who brought us the floweret.” So how is it that we, or at least the great majority of us, now sing this with reference to Jesus? You can thank (or blame) the Lutherans, and it didn’t take them long to get on the job.
The famous composer Michael Praetorius gave “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” its excellent harmony in 1609, and he helped Protestantize the lyrics (though they may have already began to have been altered a few years earlier). Praetorious was the son of a Lutheran minister (pastor Schultze, actually), and he had a special fondness for adapting Roman Catholic music and putting it in Protestant hands. With some modifications, the Rose became Jesus. Instead of bringing forth a floweret, the rose now “came” a “flow’ret bright.” And rather than have the prophet mean “Mary, the pure,” now Isaiah “‘foretold it,” and “with Mary we behold it.” Song of Solomon no longer introduced this hymn. In its place Isaiah 11 was cited, and I think we can all agree that that chapter is not about Mary. Some versions even swapped out “ros” for “reis,” but that didn’t stick. The Lutheran hymnals all printed the song with these changes, and by the time it was translated into English and turned into “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” the Egyptians had long since been plundered.
The words are very charming, but what strikes most people is the tune and the harmony. As we said, Praetorius gave us the most popular version, and it is superb. But it can be difficult to pull off at first. You see, instead of just having a guiding melody line, the piano plays many other notes, some of which occur in between the words. This always throws inexperienced singers off, as they have a tendency to follow after the piano. The timing is also a little unusual to the average American churchgoer, who has unfortunately been raised on modified lullabies posing as hymns. The Germans love to employ syncopation, and I love them for it. The rhythm will seem to speed up and then slow down, with various rests and holds, creating a dramatic effect. It takes some getting used to, but trust me, it’s definitely worth the effort. Have your folks practice it, and don’t be afraid to mess up a few times. The payoff will be great, as this is a truly beautiful composition. I didn’t grow up singing “Lo, How a rose E’er Blooming,” but it has quickly become one of my favorites.
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!