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A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint.

The text of “Lo, How a Rose” is a gloss on Isaiah’s prophecy in the Old Testament, “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Medieval theologians used the image of a tree to illustrate Jesus’ royal bloodline, tracing his lineage to Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The original melody and German text of “Lo, How a Rose” were first published in the 1599 Speyer Hymnal, a collection of hymns for German Catholic worship. Theodore Baker’s English translation of the text, used here, appeared in 1894.

Arranger, composer, and organist Daniel E. Gawthrop, an Indiana native, sets this Marian hymn deferentially, preserving the original melody in its entirety. Opening with women’s voices, the first verse evokes the tenderness and intimacy of the manger scene; the men respond, recounting Isaiah’s prophecy. Throughout, Gawthrop enfolds the melody in close, colorful harmonies, illuminating the hymn tune as subtle moving lines within the choir suggest the wafting sweetness of the Christmas Rose.

Gawthrop’s “Lo, How a Rose” appears on the Phoenix Chorale’s 2011 release, Of a Rose: A Chorale Christmas.

Miracle plays, a staple of medieval drama, were pageants on religious subjects that occupied a space between worship and entertainment. The text now known as the Coventry Carol, “Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child,” comes from a cycle of Coventry miracle plays that originated in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. One of only two surviving Coventry plays, Herod and the Slaying of the Innocents dramatizes Herod’s killing of male infants after the birth of Jesus and contains this forlorn lullaby, sung by the women of Bethlehem. Both our settings of this iconic text feature the soprano voice, the embodiment of the mothers’ tender femininity.

A chorister at Westminster Abbey in his youth, British composer Philip Stopford trained as an organist and choirmaster at several vaunted British institutions, including Oxford’s Keble College and the Canterbury Cathedral. Now based in Bronxville, NY, Stopford serves as composer in residence and music director at Christ Church. His setting of “Lully, Lulla, Lullay”—recorded in 2015 by the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir—juxtaposes the intimacy of the mothers’ lullaby with frequent, cutting dissonance.

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) studied classics at Oxford and went on to become a celebrated composer and professor of music. His background in history offers insight into his setting of “Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child,” in which he carefully preserves the musical idiom of the original Coventry Carol, first transcribed in 1591. Leighton’s setting integrates romantic lyricism in the soprano line with bittersweet cross relations—a Renaissance technique contrasting raised and lowered tones—giving the piece a sense of deep mournfulness.