On Jan Sandström’s ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’…

September 22nd, 2018

I try to find something seasonal to write about every festive period, something stimulating and unusual, something that interests me and excites my ears – it gets harder every year. But I soldier on, searching recent programmes and CDs, broadcasts and social media looking for something worth writing about. And this year I nearly gave up (life’s too short to spend that long looking for obscure Christmas carols), I contemplated writing about one of my own but realised quickly that would be a very bad idea. Then I remembered Jan Sandström’s Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’) and I thought I’d write about that. Why not!

It’s not that I think it is a particularly impressive piece of composition (though it is affecting), or there is the same level of craft or technique of A Spotless Rose or Bethlehem Down to name but two. But it is memorable, well-conceived and immaculately executed – it has one idea and it does it incredibly well, and if it is performed to a high standard, it lingers long in the memory and leaves shivers up the spine. Well it does to me. It is the product of a fecund mind, a prolific composer, and it has had the ultimate accolade – many imitations across the choral world, leaving a trail of lesser works in its serene, slowly-unfolding wake.

Jan Sandström is one of Sweden’s most celebrated composers, born in 1954 and educated in his homeland, though his music is now performed across the world (particularly this piece) with concertos for leading instrumentalists, operas and major orchestral works to his name. He rose to fame in the late 1980s with his Trombone Concerto No.1, written for the trombone virtuoso Christian Lindberg – nothing unusual there you might think, but this work has since acquired the title Motorbike Concerto or Motorbike Odyssey as the soloist has to enter the stage on a white motorbike before depicting an epic journey on said mode of transport. It is as far away from Es ist ein Ros entsprungen as you might imagine.

Sandström wrote the carol in 1990 and has since written a whole corpus of works in this style, from other short choral pieces to much larger statements, though with the same design and mood. What makes Es ist ein Ros entsprungen interesting, is that Sandström didn’t actually write the piece, well not exactly, he wrote some of it, but most of it is a different piece by the German Baroque composer Michael Praetorius from 1609. You may now be entirely confused, and I wouldn’t blame you. Let me try and explain…

Sandström took seven phrases of Praetorius’s original setting (well and truly out of copywrite you’ll be glad to know), slowed them down and gave the material to a small choir. He then took a larger second choir and provided his own harmonisation that envelops and augments the original like opaque clouds encircling a mountain – or if you want to be a bit more down-to-earth, he provided the bread in a Sandström-Praetorius-Sandström sandwich (that may be the best thing I’ve ever written). The results of which are a shimmering, distant, echo of the metrical Baroque carol with each change of harmony becoming an event in itself, powerful and magnificent. I think it gives you what the young people call ‘the feels’. Or something equally inane.

He wasn’t the first person to utilise this sort of technique, the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (1915-2014) had done something similar with his ‘realisation’ of Bach’s ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ in Immortal Bach in 1988 and no doubt others had done similar things before. But in using a Christmas carol, Sandström ensured his work would have a lifetime of festive performance opportunities and thus his most performed work was born.

So there you go, Christmas 2017 is from Sweden via seventeenth century Germany. Have a listen and have a very merry Christmas.


Comments are closed.