The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 7: “Lo, How a Rose”

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

For this selection, I was torn between two stirring acappella performances of the Michael Praetorious arrangement for this German carol. One is by an authentic Austrian quartet called Schnittpunktvokal:

The other is by the British quartet The King’s Singers. The startling purity of of David Hurley’s counter-tenor instantly leapt out and caught my attention in this version:

I couldn’t decide. So, naturally, I consulted Terry Franklin. Meanwhile, knowing that the German text has many variants and a bajillion verses to choose from, I compared rough translations of both texts used, which aren’t quite alike. Read on to find out which version I ultimately chose and why…

First, I wasn’t planning to quote Terry’s analysis but found it so fascinating that I decided it was worth it:

Both of these groups are wonderful. From a purely technical point of view I would probably go with the King’s Singers. Like most of their stuff, it’s almost flawless. The attacks and releases, the matching vowel sounds and vibrato, the blend of all 4 voices… It doesn’t get much better than this.

However, Schnittpunktvokal (which is what I said the last time I got my finger stuck in a door) has that almost undefinable “something” that goes beyond musical excellence: Emotion.  One major difference is the key they sang it in, which is significantly lower, and allows the marriage between the Bass and Baritone notes to shine. (I have always said that the way the Baritone part is sung can make a huge difference in the blend of the chord) Pitching the song down a bit allows for the Baritone to be darker in tone.

Another side thought: it looks like the King’s Singers were being miked at some distance by shotgun microphones on a television broadcast. It’s possible that the pitch of the song was raised to get more purchase out of the Bass singer.

There are some negatives with Schnittpunktvokal:  unmatching vibratos, and a second tenor that is over-singing a bit, in my opinion, which messes with the blend.

But their positives: incredible dynamics, and lingering ritards, give  them a slight edge here, in my view.

Musical excellence — The King’s Singers.

Moving me with that special “something” — Schnittpunk…, Messerschmidt, Farkenhagen…. whatever their name is. Those guys.

I was inclined to agree. However, the verdict was still out on the texts. After some googling and a rough translation provided by Mom (thanks Mom!) I was able to figure out the differences between the two texts. The first point in the King’s Singers’ favor was that they chose the text which indicates Jesus is the rose and Mary has borne it, whereas the other text is the variant which says Mary is the rose. Which is more confusing. However, the other differences were more striking. Essentially it came down to a Protestant versus Catholic contest. And unfortunately the Schnitzel-whatever rendition was the papish one. In one of the earlier verses, their text affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the added verse asks her to intercede for us. The King’s Singers’ extra verse, on the other hand, has much more Protestant sensibilities:

O Jesus, by being born
Out of this vale of tears,
Let Thy help guide us
To the hall of joy
In your father’s kingdom,
As we praise You eternally,
O God, give us that.

In the end, the King’s Singers’ stronger text choice was the deciding factor for me. So theirs is the version that I would choose for this essential collection. Here is my favorite translation of the earlier verses:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret 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 us a Savior,
when half spent was the night.

Which version do you prefer? Do you agree with my choice?

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5 Comments

Filed under Christmas Essential 12, Holidays, Songs

5 responses to “The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 7: “Lo, How a Rose”

  1. Lydia

    I’m going to vote for the Schnittpunktvokal performance over the King’s Singers. I much prefer the lower key.

    Also, there is something almost too perfectly matched about the King’s Singers, which makes the repetition of the melody almost grating after a while. I never would have thought that I could find “Lo, How a Rose” repetitive or mechanical, but it started to strike me that way by the time I got to the third verse of the King’s Singers. Perhaps that is because of the higher key and the perfect match of their voices and the ultra-precise diction. Now, about that diction: My hearing is not the best, and there’s no doubt that the words were clearer in the King’s Singers performance. But I’m not sure that’s entirely an advantage. It almost sounded unnatural. I’m neither a German speaker nor a Henry Higgins of German, but I’ll betcha that a real German speaker could immediately tell that the one group are native speakers and that the King’s Singers are not.

    Overall, too, the Schnittpunktvokal struck me as a more manly performance. I don’t think this is _entirely_ the lower key, though it has to be partly that. The contrasts among their voices just seemed musically satisfying in the way that a male group’s voices should.

    • I agree, I like the relaxed, mellower feel of Schnittpunktvokal as well, and I think their bass is more melodic. As you said, the Kings’ Singers are definitely over-pronouncing. I just wish Schnittpunktvokal had picked a more Protestant text. :-P

  2. Pingback: The Twelve Essential Tracks of Christmas, Day 9: Take 6′s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” | Southern Gospel Yankee

  3. Marcia

    Agree with YGG, but for different reasons—perhaps I’m too confined by my classical training, but I like—no, I need—to hear simultaneous attacks/releases, pitch precision, etc. So the King guys win, although I do also agree about the Schnitzels giving a more heartfelt rendition. A new thread – Think vocal performance qualities and wardrobe choice can be correlated? (rarely ever see opera people singing in jeans. . .But then, SG performers almost always wear suits, so maybe not) 

    • Well, actually I think I also prefer the Schnittpunktvokal version musically—like Lydia I find the blend more rich and manly. :-) As for wardrobe, I think a lot depends on context and current fads. It used to be hip to dress up on stage even for pop singers. And the King’s Singers were recording an official video for their big-time channel, while Schnittpunktvokal were doing a casual shoot. You can tell by the number of different camera angles in the King’s Singers’ vid that they simply have a bigger budget.

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