Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen

There is a division among Christians, notably within the United States (where one would expect a division to be, what with its distinct Christian history and development) on the manner of religious music.  I belong to the old school, with the emphasis on liturgical music that reflects a scriptural basis.  By way of explanation, I submit a fine example for this Christmas season.

Dresden Kreuzkirche, the Church of the Holy Cross in Dresden

The following piece is of the old German hymn Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, sung by the Dresdner Kreuzchor, one of the oldest boys' choirs in the world, established in the 13th century and associated with the construction of a basilica that eventually became the Kreuzkirche.  [The development of the church structure was ironically aided by a series of fires that struck the site over the ensuing centuries, as well as its partial destruction by an artillery barrage during the Seven Years War (contemporaneous with the American French and Indian War), and most significantly by the devastating bombing campaign of the USAAF and RAF during World War II, which effectively destroyed practically the entire city by the beginning of 1945.  The church was rebuilt around the only remaining portion of the structure - the wall surrounding its entrance - in the 1950s, and suffered still by the fact that the project was undertaken during the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic.]

It is a fitting place, then, for a hymn dedicated to the idea that the birth of Christ is likened to the flowering of a tender rose, in a place so battered and besieged, physically and spiritually, yet which still can bring forth such ethereal harmony to praise the Christ arisen.

The hymn can be traced back at least to the late 16th century, and the harmony was set by the German composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.  The lyrics were translated by Theodore Baker in 1894 into Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, and the music was also used for the hymn A Great and Mighty Wonder.

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.
Das Röslein, das ich meine,
davon Jesaia sagt,
ist Maria die reine
die uns das Blümlein bracht.
Aus Gottes ew'gem Rat
hat sie ein Kind geboren
Welches uns selig macht.

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 men a Savior,
Who makes us blessed.

Though hardly an authority, I nevertheless consider music of this sort, classic in the true sense of the term, to be the well-spring of liturgical music, not to be confused with other music heard in present churches, or the radio.  American Gospel, both black and white (separate but equal, as it were) is a musical category unto itself, and many can enjoy it without ever considering its message.  Don't get me wrong, I am among its fans, though my consideration of its lyrics as religious or nostalgically entertaining depends on my mood.

There are many in what can be categorized as the charismatic movement and its ripples that have diverged into a New Age mesmerizing chant, which can be summarized with the example of "You are the light of the world" (repeat 27 times, affettuoso accentato).

For those who receive spiritual nourishment from such music, all the better, but I do not believe that it rises to the intent of such hymnodists as, say, Charles Wesley or Martin Luther.  This is clearly an unresolvable discussion, but the appeal of this German hymn is ever enchanting.

1 comment:

  1. Don Kaag, retired from both the US Marine Corps and US Army Reserve, as well as teaching advanced placement History, is on a well-deserved extended tour of Europe and sends this input by separate correspondence:

    This beautiful cathedral was almost completely destroyed in 1945 by Allied bombing. Dresden was leveled around it. The Russians, and shortly later the athiest Communist East Germans, cared nothing about churches, so this beautiful church, the center of Dresden, was deliberately left as a pile of rubble while the public buildings around the central square were rebuilt and put back into use. After German reunification the citizens of Dresden wanted their cathedral back. They raised 2/3 of the necessary money and a team of archeologists, construction men and architects painstakingly deconstructed the rubble piles---17 tons of stone---and marked every piece that was identifiable and useable. That's why the building's exterior looks like it does, a checkerboard of old and new stone. It reopened in 2006. The interior is gorgeous, with the paintings and windows faithfully redone to the exact original drawings and pictures of the pre-war interior. (Fortunately the original architect's drawings and plans survived the bombing.) We were in Dresden last month and we toured the building. Its beauty makes your heart catch in your throat, and the faith that reconstructed it made its own miracle.


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