A Spotless Rose

This Christmas we count down the days with an advent calendar of the 25 best Christmas carols ever written, as voted for by 50 top choral experts from the across the UK and US.

23 December: A Spotless Rose

Words: Anonymous German


Music: Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells, who arguably more than anyone influenced British church music in the 20th century, was 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!’

December 18: O Come all ye Faithful

December 19: There is no Rose

December 20: Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day

December 21: Lully, Lulla


December 22: Bethlehem Down