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Tune My Heart: Part 3, “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”)

When each of us were young, our mothers and/or caretakers instinctively amplified the musical qualities inherent within our native languages. Infants are surrounded by an entirely foreign, complex system of communication. They exist in a state of wonder and we draw on and interact with that state by engaging them with musically creative speech. We exaggerate the natural melody of our speech, and use rhythmic patterns, repetition, simple forms, and catchy tones of voice to increase their interest, comprehension, and connection.

Music opens doors to deeper meaning, producing a fuller engagement with language. In the first song our series considered, we listened to the beautiful yearning and twisting melody of the word “Emmanuel,” pulling us into deeper engagement with the name. Both the first and second works included the text “Rejoice, rejoice!” In “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” the phrase is set with a solid, ringing exclamation after each minor verse. Handel sets the phrase throughout his piece “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” with sparkling, lilting runs. He also brings glorious beauty and striking character to the phrases “Comfort ye,” “he shall purify,” and “and his glory,” so that we rejoice, take comfort, and anticipate glory as we should, instead of just noticing the words and moving on. We are so prone to mentally assent to great text without feeling it, or better yet, without being affected and improved by it. Great composers offer a remedy to this malady of heart.

When we search to understand things beyond our grasp, the musical/poetic imagination serves to help us fill gaps and forge connections through the seeking out of pattern and melody. We are forced to ask questions of what we encounter, make hypotheses, and engage with the world more thoughtfully. In his book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, Leon R. Kass compares the confounding of languages at Babel to the creation of the woman for Adam; his argument is that in doing so God is “instituting otherness and opposition . . . the necessary condition for national self-awareness and the possibility of a politics that will hear and hearken to the voice of what is eternal, true, and good.” He states, “The trouble with Babel is the trouble with language and the complacency and pride it tends to produce. A people of one language is musically monophonic and while such unity and homogeneity . . . are compatible with material prosperity . . . they are a prescription for mindless alienation from the world, from one’s fellows, and from one’s own soul.” Like a baby immersed in new language, as we embrace experiences involving a foreign language, we assent to a desperately needed prescription for wonder. This is useful for deep and difficult concepts, like the incarnation, but also for seemingly easier concepts. A world can be discovered in the learning of a single word.

A state of wonder is particularly appropriate for the Marian Advent hymn “Es ist ein Ros’ ensprungen.” There is much to contemplate about Mary, the most blessed Mother of God. The period of Advent merits a sense of wonder as well. We considered this hymn with Jonathan’s Humane Letters students, listening to it in German, reading the literal translation, and then discussing its levels of meaning.

The Literal
This song is set in the form of a hymn with two verses, each with repeated, memorable melodies. The seven lines of text are set into four phrases. The first, second, and fourth phrases are made up of two lines of text each, set to the same melody. The third phrase is shorter, setting one line of text to different music. The German text focuses on Mary and her son Jesus. The English text shifts the emphasis slightly, to Jesus and his mother, making it simply an Advent hymn. The melody is smooth and mainly stepwise, with slow rhythmic patterns, and some syncopation (off-beat accents).

Deutch (Anonymous, 1599) Literal Translation English Text (Theodore Baker, 1894)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
Aus einer Wurzel zart.
Wie uns die Alten sungen,
Aus Jesse kam die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht,
Mitten im kalten Winter,
Wohl zu der halben Nacht.
A rose has sprung up
from a tender root,
As the old ones sang to us
From Jesse came the Way
And it has yielded a little bloom
In the middle of the cold winter
Well at half the night.
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.
Das Röslein das ich meine,
Davon Jesaias sagt:
Maria ist’s, die Reine,
Die uns das Blümlein bracht:
Aus Gottes ewigem Rat
Hat sie ein Kindlein g’boren
Und bleib ein reine Magd
The little rose that I mean,
Of which Isaiah spoke
Is Mary, the pure,
Who brought us the little bloom.
At God’s eternal counsel
She has borne a child
And remained a pure maid.
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.

The Metaphoric
This hymn operates clearly within an allegorical framework, explaining its own metaphors in order to heighten our contemplation of Mary. In the German and the literal English translation, the listener is told about a rose plant springing up from old root stock in the dead of winter. It is halfway through the night, yet a little bloom is revealed to have budded from the rose. The song explains that the root is Jesse (Davidic line), the rose is Mary, and the blümlein is a child. By invoking these images and their interpretation, the author of this hymn sets our minds working in a certain “way” (perhaps the oldest of ways) by using analogy and nature to seek the mystery of the incarnation. From this “old way” we see that this root of Jesse, buried in the earth, is representative of our nature—mere matter. We are not presented with an analogy of an animal and its baby, though they are higher forms of creation. Instead we contemplate the rose connected to the earth, rooted in place, its small bud unified with it as a single plant, partaking intimately of its nature; many a mother may feel forever that her child remains a part of her. The same holy awe was in Mary, as in any mother in beholding this new life. This was an embodied experience for her, something that no man, angel, or beast could have truly grasped—though they looked on in wonder. Through metaphor we can also approach and look on in wonder, though we were not present. “Blessed are those who, having not seen [with eyes], believe” (John 20:29).

The Moral
This song leads us to consider a great mystery of life—of divinity incarnating within the world of created matter. We need pre-rational poetic forms, like the artistic language and music of this piece, to slow us down and direct us to consider this mystery. The hymn’s still, clear notes and understated yet complex rhythms are apt choices to depict a cold, still night when all the world is asleep. The restful way in which the melody seems to float, soar, and then land at the end of each verse adds ineffable expression to the quiet arrival of the Christ-child. While discussing the effect of this piece, students said that the music gave them a sense of time being slowed down, and made them feel attentive and contemplative. The song gave some the impression that what they were hearing was something “beyond us.”

The original (German) version of this piece leaves no doubt that Mary AND the child are the rose to be contemplated. The piece affirms that Christ is no less glorified when we honor and consider his mother—he is instead revealed to be even more praiseworthy when we consider her. The slight shift of focus in the English poetic translation of this hymn seems to suggest that we with Mary behold the Christ-child, rather than beholding them together in the mystery of their biological unity as it is in the original. By considering them both together in their mysterious unity, we realize afresh that no man was involved in her conceiving—she could say of this child, in the words of Adam, “this is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23-24, KJV). In considering her, we are imaginatively and poetically asked to realign the world into a new creation: Christ is the new Adam, Mary the new Eve. While woman was taken out of man, this time the Son of Man was born only of a woman (“the woman’s seed”). Unlike Eve, who said “yes” to the serpent, Mary says “yes” to Gabriel’s message from God; her son will crush that serpent’s head. While Eve takes of the fruit of tree, Mary is there when the fruit of her womb is hung on a tree. Contemplation of the incarnation helps us to see redemption at work in the world around us. The seasons, times of day, plants, animals, people, and most especially the young woman who bore Christ, deeply matter if we would consider the humanity of Christ.

The Anagogical
“This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animal on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.” —Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

This hymn embodies the concept that the darkest times of life impart deep meaning, awakening us to beauty. Beautiful things are often brought forth in the midst of adversity. As one of our students considered, our Lord came into the world as a thief in the night—and he will do so again. Like the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, the virgins awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, the watchman straining for the coming of the dawn, a poor woman preparing for a last meal, or the wise men looking for a star, we must be ready and alert.

The hymn also quickens our hearts to the universal truth that all matter has the potential to be “mater” or metaphorically “mother” to divine will and action in the world:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: . . . But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. (Romans 8:22-25, KJV)

There is no mere matter anymore, no mere mortal that we meet on the street. The incarnation is asking us to see for ourselves how the story of our salvation all began in dirt which, though dead, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” Each flower that opens to the sun reveals the “yes” that Mary said to the angel Gabriel’s proclamation. She said “yes.” We too ought to dwell in a place of saying “yes” to God.

As each of these articles has recommended, we should listen to and strive to understand works and types of music which belong to a long tradition of beloved sacred music. Opening ourselves up to music/text/themes that are foreign to us reminds us to operate in a state of wonder, engaging with metaphor and embracing deeper meaning poetically.

There are several ways to continue engaging deeply with the music we have discussed. The first hymn we discussed, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is a wonderful piece to listen to in Latin (especially for Latin students). This and other traditional Latin Christmas carols, their texts, and literal and poetic translations are made available here by Classical Academic Press. Handel’s Messiah is rich with musical expression that captures the ineffable mysteries of the scriptural text—and more of its meaning will open up to you if you sit down for a listen with the score in hand. (Other oratorios, especially those by Bach, though in German, are well worth the added effort of considering their musical settings and respective literal translations.) “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and other beloved Christmas carols merit consideration in their original languages. While there are some secular efforts to preserve some of these works (“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO), they are the church’s heritage as well, which we preserve through listening and interacting with the original works.

This Christmas, rather than allowing the spaces of our lives to resound with the echoes of consumerism, pride, complacency, or of our own failings, we say with the church, “Tune my heart to sing thy Grace.” We have enjoyed adding these three pieces to our own family traditions for this Advent season. Thank you for reading and meditating with us upon these excellent works.

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