This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of our parish magazine.
Composed by Paul Mealor, the text is taken from a 15th century anonymous German poem, translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1919. The poem was based on the prophecy of Isaiah in 11.1: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:”
A Spotless Rose is growing,
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; Through God’s great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.
The poem refers to Jesus as the “Spotless Rose”, and tells us that he will be born of Mary, descended from Jesse, and that she will be pure. Mary is the “tender root”, and the rosebud (Jesus) will blossom on a cold night in the middle of winter.
Mealor wrote this as the last of a set of four Advent hymns collectively known as Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. Scored for an 8-part choir, the opening and ending are very low in the range of each voice part, and marked ppp – piapianissimo, or very, very quiet. These sections are also to be sung adagio molto espressivo, or slowly and very expressively. For me, this indicates some sort of expectancy, a dormant tuber waiting quietly underground to spring into life.
Twice though the choir sings of “Mary, purest Maid”. At these points the pitch rises very high, the tempo speeds up and the volume increases to forte, or loud. These climaxes acknowledge Mary’s vital role as mother of Jesus.
Singers like to be well prepared, and I first encountered this set of madrigals in the summer of 2017, at a rehearsal of Manchester Chorale. At time of writing we have not yet performed them, but hopefully they’ll get an outing at one of our Carol Concerts this December. I get tingles every time we rehearse it, and truly hope we will perform it at our Christmas concert this year. Meanwhile, you can listen to a recording of “A Spotless Rose” here.
Wishing you a joyous Advent and Christmas time.