When was ‘A Spotless Rose’ written and who composed the music?
It is unknown who wrote the words to the German hymn ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ known as ‘A Spotless Rose’, or ‘Lo, how a rose e’er blooming‘ in Britain but it is thought to date back to the 16th century. Over the centuries verses have been added and different music composed, but one one of its most famous versions is the one by Herbert Howells, who arguably more than anyone influenced British church music in the 20th century, despite not himself a believer.
Suitably, his A Spotless Rose was thought up in the least sacred of circumstances – Howells said it came to him as he was watching trains shunting on the Bristol-Gloucester line from his cottage window. Shunting trains seem a world away from the arching lines of the anthem itself, in which the flowing melody is carried first by the choir then a baritone soloist over a subdued chorale-like harmony. And, as is so often the case with Howells, a touch of brilliance is saved for the final chords. ‘I should like, when my time comes, to pass away with that magical cadence,’ wrote fellow composer Patrick Hadley. Jeremy Suter, master of music at Carlisle Cathedral agrees: ‘The scrunchy harmonies of the final few bars are pure, unadulterated bliss!’
What are the lyrics to ‘A Spotless Rose’?
A spotless Rose is blowing
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 Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For through our God’s great love and might
The blessed babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.
What’s the story behind ‘A Spotless Rose’?