Today’s Word from Trinity Keyboardist Sheila Weidendorf…

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah 11:1

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Isaiah 35:1-2

The first known print appearance (text only) of this beautiful 15th century German Advent carol – Es ist ein Ros entsprungen – was in a 1580 manuscript found in St. Alban’s Carthusian monastery in Trier, Rhineland (Germany). It was then published in 1599 as a 23-stanza carol in Alte catholische geistliche Kirchengesiinge in Cologne. The very famous organist, music theorist, and composer Michael Praetorius included it in his 1609 volume entitled Musae Sionae (Zion’s Music). Praetorius was perhaps Germany’s most famous musician at the time and his writings about music were undoubtedly the best known to other musicians. He was born into a Lutheran family and both harmonized traditional tunes and composed and expanded the Protestant chorale or hymn form. His harmonization of Es ist ein Ros is the one still in common use today. It essentially flows in the style of a Renaissance Madrigal, the rhythms being text-based and not so much concerned with standard meters (remember, the bar line in musical notation is a modern invention, making the math of the measure readily visible!)

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 flow’ret 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 them a Savior,
When half-spent was the night.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
with sweetness fills the air,
dispel in glorious splendor
the darkness every where.
True man yet very God,
from sin and death now save us,
and share our every load.

The first two stanzas here were translated by Theodore Baker in 1900. Baker, a musicologist by trade, was born in 1851 in New York but studied music in Leipzig and later moved back to Germany (where he died in 1934) in 1926 after retiring from his long-time position as a literary editor and translator for the Schirmer publishing company. He was well known for his compilation, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (pub. 1900) – the first reference work to include American composers. His musicological dissertation on the music of the Seneca people of New York was one of the first works to feature the music of Native Americans. He was also the translator of the popular hymns, We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing and While by My Sheep I Watched at Night.

The text of this hymn is believed to have been inspired by a reference in the book of Isaiah to the coming of one in the lineage of Jesse that would cause even the desert to bloom. It is believed that the original expression of the text in its Catholic origin refers to Mary (the mystical rose from the Song of Solomon 2:1 – “I am a rose of Sharon and a lily of the valleys.”) It was then the Protestant Praetorius who shifted the interpretation of the rose in Isaiah’s text from Mary to Jesus. There is also some question of the term “Rose,” as the original text “ein Ros” was really the earlier German “ein Reis,” meaning a shoot or sproutling, and not the bloom of a rose.

In any regard, the first two stanzas remain essentially scripture-based, inspired by the beautiful and poetic imagery of the rose that blooms in winter – even in desolation – where none should be able to bloom. The rose as a mystic symbol is a recurring theme in Christianity going back to the Middle Ages. It even appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy as a symbol of God’s love. Many a Catholic cathedral boasts a rose window. In today’s hymn, the rose is a symbol of hope – the impending fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a blessing should come to the people, born of the lineage of Jesse, the father of King David and the ancestral origin of Jesus of Nazareth. In a way, it could be interpreted as God being the seed, Jesse the root, Mary the stem, and Jesus the miraculous bloom of hope in a weary and woe-begotten world.

The third verse is a more “personalized” reference to Jesus as the coming savior, the one who would bring light into the darkness. The symbolism of the rose and its blessed fragrance is equated with the symbolism of light and includes a reference to the Nicene Creed (“true God yet very man”), a common confession of Christians of many denominations.

Thus this beautiful Advent hymn takes us all back to the poetry of the Song of Solomon, revisits the Hebrew prophets, walks us through the more personal references to Christ that arose in the latter 19th century, and still delivers us into the lap of hope that there can be – there IS – light to dispel the darkness, beauty in the midst of what is barren or ugly, sweetness that can envelop us like a blessed fragrance even when circumstances are harsh or unbearable. Like a rose blooming in the cold of winter, God’s love can blossom within each of us – each of us a child of God, and in that blessed love we are never alone. And now, in this season of Advent, hope can illumine us in the midst of the darkness of the world, as we know that, very soon, the Rose shall bloom again…

Click HERE to enjoy the tune performed by Linda Vogt on violin and myself on organ.

Sheila Weidendorf

Tune: Es Ist Ein Ros
Harmonized by Michael Praetorius, 1609

Text: 15th Century German,
Stanzas 1-2 translated by Theodore Baker, 1900
Stanza 3 written (1800s; German) by Friedrich Layritz, translated first by Harriet Reynolds Kraugh in 1875, then adapted by Gracia Grindal, 1978