“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is an easy carol to write about, because I do not have to convince you it is beautiful. Pull up any choral recording, slide over to the penultimate phrase—“amid the cold of winter”—and listen hard to that last word. Between the first and second syllable of winter, the minor chord blossoms into major.
I mean this seriously: What else is there to say? Here is the chill of winter transfigured into an ardent flame; here is theology as harmony. “Lo, How a Rose” even includes an extended pastoral analogy and an allusion to the Book of Isaiah. I’m not a Christian, but I’m at a loss as to what more you could want from sacred music. Kazoos?
Most Christmas carols, and most of our popular music generally, exist for the rhythm or melody. Consider how much mileage “Angels We Have Heard on High” gets out of its cascading glorias, or how much of the fun of “Carol of the Bells” springs from its icy intervals or insistent tempo. But “Lo, How a Rose” exists for the chords. There is almost no rhythmic variation: The four voices move together, syllable after syllable, in patient homophony. This is a hymn about beholding and listening. It’s about watching revelation flourish.
It’s been about this since the beginning. Many Christmas tunes date back centuries, but what’s striking about “Lo, How a Rose” is that it is old as a coherent piece of music. However ancient it is, “Greensleeves” has changed a lot: The lyrics used to talk about a prostitute; now they talk about Jesus. But “Lo, How a Rose” has pretty much been the same since its inception in the early 17th century.
The tune we now know first appears in a regional hymnal in 1599 as “Es Ist ein Ros Entsprungen.” Michael Praetorius, a court composer in central Germany, wrote the familiar harmonization 10 years later. Such ends the meaningful musical history of “Lo, How a Rose.” There have been a few changes to the text since then—more German verses were added in the 19th century, and the most common English translation was written in 1894—but essentially none to the music. Hear the song today, in church or in a mall, and you’ll almost certainly hear the exact chords Praetorius picked, in the order he picked them.
As it was written for choir, there’s no good solo version. Sting’s sometimes-cited 2009 cover isn’t the exception that proves the rule here. Rather, it’s the embarrassment—of pizzicato strings, of whispered text, of bizarro pronunciation—that should convince all future artists not to test the rule, ever.
Even Sufjan Stevens’s cover is less a solo version than an instrumental version that happens to include singing. Stevens’s doubled vocal is lovely, sure, but I’m moved more by hearing his distinct orchestration—glockenspiel, banjo, guitar—brush its way into each chord after scintillating chord.
These versions are lovely, but they’re not exactly justifying corporeal existence. For that, we have to turn to the Swedish composer Jan Sandström’s more recent choral arrangement, “Det Är en Ros Utsprungen.” Every harmony has been taken from Praetorius’s original and extended, embellished for maximum ethereality.
I’ve heard it said that, when written music succeeds, you enter a single life-world designed by the composer and awakened by the performers. We don’t only enter Sandström’s version, though. He gives us time to wander around, look at the decor, and settle into a sofa made of well-tuned vowels. If you can ignore the screensaver-style visuals, here is a fine recording, from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge:
Perhaps later generations, less hung up on attention than ours, will find other ways to ornament Praetorius’s score. Maybe their arrangements will dwell less in meditation and more in quickly oscillating rhythm. Yet the core will remain. For more than 400 Decembers, singers have waited on “Lo, How a Rose.” It is a text in sound; it is a set of tones and pauses; it is a cogent path of breath and time.