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History of Hymns: Hymn presents Savior as “rose e’er blooming”

by C. Michael Hawn

“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”
From the 15th-century German, translated by Theodore Baker
UM Hymnal, No. 216

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as those of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

 

Michael Praetorius

“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a familiar and beloved Advent hymn. The hymn’s origins may be traced back to the late 16th century in a manuscript found in St. Alban’s Carthusian monastery in Trier in the original German, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The original stanzas (sources list at least 19 and as many as 23) focused on the events of Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 2. 

The origin of the image of the rose has been open to much speculation. For example, an apocryphal legend has it that on Christmas Eve, a monk in Trier found a blooming rose while walking in the woods, and then placed the rose in a vase on an altar to the Virgin Mary. 

Some Catholic sources claim that the focus of the hymn was originally upon Mary, who is compared to the symbol of the “mystical rose” in Song of Solomon 2:1: “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.” 

It has been suggested that at a later date Protestants took the hymn, altering its focus from Mary to Jesus. Citing Isaiah 11:1—“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”—some controversy arose as to the original German word in the first line of stanza one: Was it “Ros” (rose) or “Reis” (branch)? 

A third passage from Isaiah 35:1 suggests a stronger biblical basis for the image: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” 

The image of the rose has had amazing resilience over the centuries. I have an icon that I purchased in a desert monastery in Greece some years ago. Anna, the mother of Mary, is dressed in green and is the larger figure; her daughter Mary is seated in front of her in red. At first it appears that the figure of Jesus, so common with images of Mary, is not present. Then, upon closer examination, one notices that Mary is holding a flower—Isaiah’s promise fulfilled. 

Theodore Baker (1851-1934) provided the most commonly sung translation of stanzas one and two in 1894. Born in New York and educated in Leipzig, he is remembered primarily for his monumental Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, the first edition appearing in 1900 with subsequent editions continuing to the present. 

The third stanza in the United Methodist Hymnal is a slightly adapted version of a stanza written in German by Friedrich Layritz (1808-1859) and translated by Harried Reynolds Kraugh (1845-1925) in 1875. 

Layritz’s final stanza expands the metaphor of the Rose image, adding fragrance. The author would appear at first to mix his metaphors, but he then petitions the “Flower” to “dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.” Of course, this is no ordinary flower and it represents Christ, the Light of the World. The hymn ends with an allusion to the Nicene Creed—“True man, yet very God”—and petitions the “Flower” to “from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.” 

Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), the famous 19th-century translator of German hymns, offers another beautiful version of the first two stanzas from the German. It is interesting to compare her version of stanza one with the stanza we commonly sing:

A Spotless Rose is growing,
sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
its fairest bud unfolds to light,
amid the cold, cold winter,
and in the dark midnight.


The famous composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) helped the popularity of this tune immensely by harmonizing it in his collection Musae Sioniae (Zion’s Music) in 1609. His harmonization of this German tune, or adaptations of it, may be found in most hymnals.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns