Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Herbert Howells: A Spotless Rose

The Three Carol Anthems, which include 'A Spotless Rose', 'Here is the little door' and 'Sing Lullaby', were composed between 1918 and 1920. Patrick Russill has suggested that these were the first of Howells’ choral works to ‘consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period...’

Christopher Palmer records a conversation with the composer:-
'This [A Spotless Rose] I set down and wrote after idly watching some shunting from the window of a cottage....which overlooked the Midland Railway [in Gloucester] In an upstairs room I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol to Gloucester railway line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging . I wrote it and dedicated to my mother – it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.'
A Spotless Rose has become a favourite carol: it is sung in churches and chapels around the world at Christmastide. Furthermore, there are some 47 recordings of this carol listed in the Arkiv Catalogues. Perhaps it is the clever balance of the parts and the introduction of an important baritone solo that gives this carol its distinctive character? It is at one and the same time challenging and approachable.

A Spotless Rose is blowing,
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;
For through God's great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter's night ‘

'A Spotless Rose’ is, like Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ and Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ a near perfect example of the fusion of words and music.
Hear King's College Cambridge give a beautiful performance of this carol on YouTube


Anonymous said...

I share your enthusiasm and enjoyed your analysis of the appeal of Howell's music. A Spotless Rose is sublime. I have been singing this music since I was a teenager in church and recreational choirs. It creates a wonderful internal joy.

John France said...

Many Thanks for that!

John F