Es ist ein Ros’ Entsprungen

The Development of a German Christmas Folksong into an English Carol
by Paul Hinz

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
Aus einer Wurzel zart,
Wie uns die Alten sungen,
Von Jesse kam die Art,
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
Mitten im kalten Winter
Wohl zu der halben Nacht.
Das Röslein, das ich meine,
Davon Jesaiah sagt,
Hat uns gebracht alleine
Marie, die reine Magd.
Aus Gottes ew’gem Rat
Hat sie ein Kind geboren
Wohl zu der halben Nacht.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
In Jesse’s household rooming,
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 man a Savior,
When half-spent was the night.
Theodore Baker, 1894
Behold a branch is growing
Of loveliest form and grace,
As prophets sung, foreknowing;
It springs from Jesse’s race.
And bears one little Flower
In midst of coldest winter,
At deepest midnight hour.
Isaiah hath foretold it,
In words of promise sure,
And Mary’s arms enfold it,
A virgin meek and pure.
Through God’s eternal will
This Child to her is given
At midnight calm and still.
H. R. Spaeth, 1875

What is more strikingly beautiful than a radiant red rose blossoming in the midst of winter? What is more lovely than a green sprig sprouting from a dead tree stump in the midst of a frosty, snowy winter? These two images emanate from different English translations of an old German Christmas carol full of Old Testament imagery and hopeful promise.
Occasionally an error occurs in translation, which, unbeknownst to the translator, improves the original. A possible mistranslation in the first line of this carol translation has given an image beloved in any case. “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “Behold a Branch Is Growing” are different titles of different translations of the same hymn.
There are differing explanations for the different translations of the word “Ros.” One is that there was a copying error: “Ros” (rose) was accidentally written as “Reis” (branch), and thus the “rose” became a “branch.”A more plausible explanation is that the older German word “Rose” meant “twig” or “shoot,” and this was mistranslated into the English as “rose.” In the one version of the carol then, the rose as a symbol of perfection and life came to represent Jesus.
The German carol and its accompanying tune both originated anonymously in Trier, Germany, around 1500, perhaps earlier. Trier was founded as a Roman colony in 16 B. C. by Caesar Augustus. The man who founded the city where this carol originated was the same man responsible for unwittingly compelling the holy family to journey to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in fulfillment of Scripture.
The earliest manuscript of the carol was found in St. Albans Carthusian monastery in Trier, and has been dated at around 1580. It was first printed in a hymnal in 1582, and included about 19 stanzas. When it was printed in the Alte Catholische Geistliche Kirchegesänge in 1599, the number of stanzas had grown to 23.
The original carol did not focus on Jesus, but on Mary. Luther had established a precedent of turning good Catholic hymns into good Lutheran hymns. In a similar manner, in the late 1500’s someone took this hymn addressed to Mary, and with the changing of a few words and some syntax turned it into a hymn of two stanzas focusing on Jesus and echoing the prophecy of 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.”
The Lutheran composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the son of a Lutheran pastor, composed a wonderful harmonization of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” and published two stanzas in his Musae Sioniae (Music of Zion). Thereby the lovely carol as we know it came to be beloved among German Lutherans.
In the nineteenth century, Theodore Baker translated the first two stanzas into English. Friedrick Layritz wrote two more stanzas, which Harriett R. Spaeth also translated into English. John C. Mattes added another stanza in English translation in 1914. Catherine Winkworth, the foremost 19th century translator of German hymns into English, also tried her hand at an English translation:
A spotless Rose is growing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ forshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
Through God’s great love and might
The blessed Babe she bears us
In cold, cold winter’s night.
Jesus was probably not born at midnight in the bleak midwinter. Still, darkness and cold are fine metaphors to emphasize the tension surrounding His birth. He was born to bring life out of death and light out of darkness. The prophecy of Isaiah, in which the stem brings forth the flower, and the flower blossoms in the bleakness of mid-winter, was written when the darkest time of Israel’s history was immanent.
The poet Isaiah uses the metaphor of the tree stump to portray the judgment that was coming. Israel would be obliterated by Assyria and later Judah would be decimated by Babylon. Of the house of David there would be nothing left but burnt stumps sticking out of the ground. Yet from that devastation a solitary shoot would spring forth and hope would revive. God would not forget. His people or His promises. Jesus was born much later, when the scepter had indeed departed from Judah and the ruler’s staff from between his feet. The Romans were ruling Judah with an iron fist. It was then time for Shiloh to come, and for the Shoot to spring forth from the stump of the house of David. A Sprig sprouted and a Rose blossomed in a barn in Bethlehem, as the embodiment of God’s faithfulness and truthfulness.
The carol places the birth of Christ “amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.” During a time in Israel’s history that was indeed dark, cold, and hopeless, hope was born. Whether or not Jesus was born at midnight, the poetic expression tells the manner of his coming. He came so unobtrusively that no one noticed His coming into the world which He had made. The most beautiful event in the world happened virtually unnoticed, save for the lowly shepherds. They received the angelic summons and went and worshiped. Perhaps there is also a hint of the extreme lateness of this gladsome event, as in the Parable of the Bridegroom in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Jesus came thousands of years after He was first promised in the Garden of Eden. Such beauty was indeed hidden from the world.
The German melody paired with this carol is an early folk melody both melancholy and bright, solemn yet joyful. It comes from the High Renaissance or Baroque period. Thus the tune is characteristic of the Renaissance madrigal. It has a rounded bar form and the musical pattern of AABA. It begins mysteriously and solemnly, characteristic of the incarnation. Three quarters of the way through the stanza the melody changes to a brighter rhythm and a faster tempo. The melody then returns quickly to the original solemn tone and rhythm for the finish. Additionally, in the solemn three-quarters of the melody there is the syncopation of the second and fourth lines, which adds to the rugged character of the carol. Rhythmic syncopation characterized the early church chorales. The music was lively and vigorous, matching the message.
The history of this development from German folksong to English carol spans five hundred years. A carol is a song of joy originally accompanied with dancing. Singing this carol or listening to it, one may envision either a waltz or lullaby for the “A” sections, and an up-tempo fox-trot in section “B”. The mood created in each verse by the melody is melancholy merriment.
Karl Koehler included his version of this carol on the title page of the December 1929 issue of Faith-Life:
The stem of Jesse sprouteth,
As promised us of old,
A living branch from out of
Its roots ye may behold.
And lo! A blossom fair
On it doth now unfold,
Even in winter’s cold.
The wondrous tale I tell ye
Isaiah long foretold,
He knew of virgin Mary,
The Child her arms now hold
Whom God’s eternal love
Hath sent, for joy untold,
Into men’s drear abode.
To Shepherds at Bethlem ‘biding
By heaven’s host was sung
Erstwhile this gladsome tiding:
Christ, your desire, has come!
In David’s town He is born
And mark! They straightway found Him
In Bethlem, ere ‘twas morn.
Three wise men journeyed thither,
Led on by Bethlem’s Star;
They witnessed its vast splendor
In eastern climes afar.
By God Himself as taught,
The Newborn King to worship
Their riches they have brought.
From us, our Blessed Savior,
Thy kindness ne’er withhold,
Who by Thy bloody favor
Hast paid the debt we owed;
And when life we depart,
Take us, as Thou hast vowed,
Into Thy heav’nly abode.

Sources:
“Hymns of the Faith, “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, with Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill Wymond. Dec. 28, 2008.
“The 12 Days of Christmas Carols – Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” by Steven Wedeworth, Jan. 4, 2013.
Hymnary.org
Cyberhymnal.org
Polack, W. G., The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal, 3rd edition. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958.
Postscript:
Christina Rossetti, the English poet who wrote the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” wrote the following poem about Mary (in 1877), the rose who bore the Rose. The writer of the above article wishes to share this poem as well:
Herself a rose, who bore the Rose,
She bore the Rose and felt its thorn.
All Loveliness new-born
Took on her bosom its repose,
And slept and woke there night and morn.
Lily herself, she bore the one
Fair Lily; sweeter, whiter, far
Than she or other are:
The Sun of Righteousness her Son,
She was His morning star.
She gracious, He essential Grace,
He was the Fountain, she the rill:
Her goodness to fulfill
And gladness, with proportioned pace
He led her steps thro’ good and ill.
Christ’s mirror she of grace and love,
Of beauty and of life and death:
By hope and love and faith
Transfigured to His Likeness, ‘Dove
Spouse, Sister, Mother,’ Jesus saith.

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