October 21, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer (+ a bonus!): December 21, 2015

Rose under hoar-frost

It was at school that I first discovered the beauty of music — in “Lo! How a Rose, E’er Blooming.”

Seventh graders were required to take music class. We were not music enthusiasts, to say the least. There was about us all the sense of artistic compulsion, but in the cause of sheer endurance. Nothing more. Our teacher was Mr. Waite, the assistant principal. Mr. Waite was a towering, imposing, intense force to be reckoned with. He managed rooms full of junior high students with a firmness that produced consistent results. Fear of impending doom concentrates the mind wonderfully, and sometimes, in our case, frees the voice to do great things.

I later learned that he was, in fact, a boisterous, happy and spontaneous man who could make anyone smile, but we rarely, if ever, saw that smile. He was turning seventh grade Philistines into singers, and this was war. His entrance into our tiny music room was like the arrival of a holy prophet bound and determined to convert the captive heathen to the true faith. He did not abide any misbehavior, and we would sing whether we liked it or not. We were there to sing, and we would learn to sing and we did sing. Or else…I’m not sure what would have happened, but I didn’t want to find out.

I couldn’t read a note of music, and though Mr. Waite diligently taught us, and I surely nodded at every lesson, I never learned to actually read music. But that didn’t mean I didn’t learn to sing. I was blessed with a good voice and memory. I loved to sing with a group. If we couldn’t read the music, we could still memorize our part, and I did.

Christmas approached that seventh grade year, and we prepared for a Christmas music program for our parents. I am sure I was in the choir and sang several pieces, but I only recall one piece. Mr. Waite used a small, seventh grade boy’s choir, and among other things, we sang a classic arrangement of Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

I knew the usual Christmas Carols from church, but I had never heard this song or anything of its kind. I didn’t understand the text. I didn’t understand the scriptural references. I certainly didn’t understand the beautiful arrangement by German composer Michael Praetorius. I did know that this song was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.

I remember our performance well. There was a small group of us formerly rowdy boys, all standing in white shirts, singing words from the 15th century, in almost complete ignorance, but now under Mr. Waite’s tutelage, becoming instruments of beauty despite our depravity and barbarian natures. My mother was there, and I am sure she was proud of me in my shirt, tie and cowlick, but I could never tell her, or anyone else, what I was really feeling. I didn’t have words for it myself. I couldn’t have told Mr. Waite what happened to me in those rehearsals and in that performance, but I had entered a whole new world.

I wonder how many people in my world have never been moved by music? They listen to the radio or CDs and are excited, or manipulated, but never moved by pure beauty like a visit from a spirit. How many have never been drawn into the beauty and the mystery of wondrous art like this seventh grade boy? Perhaps that day was my biggest step toward believing that God was real, good and loved me. Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it? Was this all there was, or was there more? And when this world is exhausted, is that all there is, or is there more beside? Is there what Lewis called a heaven of music and silence?

Mr. Waite, I owe you a great debt. You transformed us into the conduits of beauty, and you put the music of the gods on our lips when we were too young to know what it all meant. You rescued me from an artless world and showed me worlds beyond. You did what every educator should long to do- bring the experience of truth, beauty and wonder into young hearts and minds, and so capture us that we can never be happy again without tasting more of that miracle. You gave me a great gift, a gift that life, with all its pain and loss, will never take away. I will always have that song. And now, I have the Rose of whom the poet wrote, and the beauty that made that wonderful song beautiful is mine as well.

• • •

Note from CM: Here are the incomparable King’s Singers, singing this magnificent Christmas hymn in its original German, “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”


  1. Beautiful! the post from Michael and the hymn from the King’s Singer’s

  2. 1st Choir I was ever in and my sister was still alive we sang this song. I still have the music. We were suppose to turn it back in but I couldn’t. Just looked it up. So beautiful as men of old have sung.

    • It was just a couple of years ago and I’m 56. Can’t read music and I’m sure I couldn’t that night through clouded eyes. The men beside me grabbed hold and gave me strength. I saw her face and still can, She was proud of me after all I had been through. Maybe this is just what I needed.

  3. Pellicano Solitudinis says

    “Longing for joy” – thank you for giving me words to describe something I have always felt about this kind of music – a sense of almost unbearable beauty that stops me from being able to breathe. I think of it as “audible candlelight” and my father says that certain composers still knew how the angels sang. For some reason it’s particularly strong in Praetorius’ music. If you want an overdose, try listening to Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort’s recording of Praetorius’ Mass for Christmas Morning.

    • Pellicano – yes. (I’m a fan of Praetorius’ liturgical music myself, the Christmas music especially.)

      • I really was wondering about you Numo. You have been on my mind for awhile and I hope all is well.

        • w, thanks so much for your kind words snd thoughts. This is a difficult time of year, and i needed the encouragement.

  4. Spem in alium nunquam habui
    Praeter in te, Deus Israel
    Qui irasceris et propitius eris
    et omnia peccata hominum
    in tribulatione dimittis
    Domine Deus
    Creator caeli et terrae
    respice humilitatem nostram

    Not strictly an Advent song, since the reading comes around in the end of October, but the Catholic Thomas Tallis wrought this is the throes of the Elizabethan Reformation. I was surprised that he was able to survive, and create great Music during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI. Mary, and Elizabeth. Despite his being an “unreformed Roman Catholick”, he has a feast day in the Church of England.

    The linked version above is a stripped down version for the six voices of the King’s Singers. T hear Spem In Alium in its full acapella angelic glory, listen to it s it was originally written, for 40 voices.

    • Something extra –

      The Troparion of the Nativity, by St. Romanos the Melodist, sung in Arabic.
      We will be hearing this, in English, on Christmas Eve.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      The Elizabethan persecution of Roman Catholics tends to be overstated. Being Catholic wasn’t a good career move if you were a courtier and not independently wealthy, but it’s not like they were rounding Catholics up and putting them in concentration camps. So long as you were apolitical about it, you could go about your business. Those priest holes you read about? In 1570 the Pope issued a bull absolving English Catholics of their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, and about the same time a seminary was set up in Douai to train English priests, who were then sent back to England with the express goal of converting it back to Catholicism. This was very much politics in opposition to the crown, and not in a “loyal opposition” sort of way.

      In the event, Tallis didn’t seem to get into any trouble. His younger contemporary (and even better composer, and that’s saying something) William Byrd did, including a stint of quasi-house arrest. This seems to have been more for who we was consorting with than for anything he personally did. He wrote quite a lot of Catholic liturgical music, some of it spectacular. So far as I know he didn’t get into trouble for this.

      In any case, there were never any of the more lurid Tower-of-London episodes about either of them. I don’t think it hurt in either case that they were clearly great composers, in an age when the crowned heads of Europe ate that stuff up.

      • ” So long as you were apolitical about it, you could go about your business.” That’s true after a certain period, but martyrdoms continued through the 1600s. This article [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Catholic_martyrs_of_the_English_Reformation]
        lists well over 300 Catholic martyrs, and points out that for a time being a devout Catholic was treason and punishable by death. This state of affairs didn’t last forever, and things got a bit more relaxed, but it wasn’t until 1829 that Catholics were granted close to equal civil rights.

        • Yes… problems come in, though, regarding the people who were actively involved in plots to overthrow Elizabeth I and either get Mary, Quern of Scots on the throne, or else make sure that the Spanish armada was successful, or… pick one.

          It is *very* sad that so many ordinary people who hadn’t done anything wrong got caught up and executed by the state. It is no better than what went on under Mary Tufor, when 300+ Protestants were burned alive, or the St. Bartholomew’s day massacres in Frsnce.

          It makes me ill to think of all these deaths in the wake of ghe Reformation, regsrdless of whst religious beliefs people held. It was an incredibly brutal time in much of the world.

          • The Church’s record of violence and coercion against religious dissenters before the Reformation wasn’t so hot, either; remember the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, for an example. For hundreds of years the Church had been pregnant with a repressive violence that only broke out occasionally against heretical groups and non-Christians of various sorts; at the Reformation, the Church gave birth to that violence in its fullness.

  5. Excellent post to start the week; thanks much!

  6. Wonderful re-post. Music, even secular, has a way of connecting my spirit to God’s like nothing else does.

    I discovered music later than Michael did, but it was also was in a school setting (in high school band). Our director was known to be a bit tough, but he pushed us and challenged us to places we wouldn’t have achieved otherwise.

    Two pieces have always remained with me. The first, Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, exposed me to classical compositions and told me there was true beauty to be found in music (much as Michael discovered with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming). There are days when I’ll be walking along and begin humming that piece.

    The second piece, Maynard Ferguson’s “Gospel John,” was one we played in pep band. I find myself also humming it periodically. It was the perfect pep band piece. As I listen to it now, as a Chrisitan, it’s almost like a proclamation of the Good News. The part we played in pep band begins at the 1:39-ish mark…lol…not the awesome trumpeting intro…


    • Marche Slave was pretty big for me in high school, too, Rick. It was on the radio the other day and I, too, found myself able to hum along to it perfectly even though I can’t remember the last time I’d listened to it.

  7. “Lo” holds a special place in me, too, though I didn’t discover it until college. Michael Praetorius, who set the (19-stanza!) poem to music, was one of the best composers of his day – anything by him is worth hearing. On the heels of yesterday’s post, the poem itself is actually as much about Mary as it is about Jesus…

    Here is my translation of the most-often sung verses:

    A rose is sprung up from a tender root, as the old ones sang to us.
    From Jesse this kind came, and has brought us a little flower
    in the middle of the cold winter, indeed even at midnight.

    The little rose I mean, of which Isaiah told, was brought to us by Mary, the pure one, alone;
    from God’s eternal counsel she bore a child
    and remained a pure maiden.

    The little blossom, so small, whose fragrance is to us so sweet,
    drives away the darkness with his bright appearance.
    True Man and True God,
    he helps us out of all distress, saves us from sin and death.

    Fröhlige Weihenacten! -and from the other side of my ethnicity, Buon Natale!


    • Nice….from a quiet man who sits in the pews putting a few coppers in from time to time. Your writing here touches me deeply…..thanks, Bill

      • Likewise yours, Bill.

        Do give those kitties some love from me when you remember. We’re in a temporary pet-less season, and I miss my animals, and think about yours.


  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I am reminded of this 2007 IMonk podcase and accompanying riff on the Evangelical Circus’s “MAO Inhibitors”; removing Mystery, Awe, and Otherness from God:


    And it’s incidents like “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” and its “longing for joy” (as opposed to “When We All Get to Heaven”) that restore that Mystery, Awe, and Otherness.

  9. “Lo! How a Rose, E’er Blooming”

    That title is about Christ’s relationship to the church, right?

    • You mean the line from the hymn? It is about the rose (Christ) springing from the “root of Jesse,” blooming no matter the weather/season.

      If you look up “Es ist ein rose entsprungen,” you might find a better, more literal, translation of the words than is the case in the usual English-language version.

  10. Happy Solstice to all! Tomorrow is one second longer than today. All is on track. Light shines in the darkness.