Sheep grazing among the Paschal roses

From my old friend (of 60+ years now) BBC — Benita Bendon Campbell, aka Bonnie Campbell — yesterday, a Jacquie Lawson electronic greeting card “Eastern Morning”, full of symbols of the holiday (including many plants, hellebores among them) and accompanied by a particularly bright orchestral setting of Bach’s gorgeous aria Schafe können sicher weiden (“Sheep May Safely Graze”). Solid delight.

First, some plants. Then the music.

Icons of the crucifixion. Most spectacularly, dogwood flowers (note: what ordinary people understand as the petals of the flowers are technically bracts, and the actual flowers are the little things in the center; that’s of genuine botanical interest, but perceptually, they’re petals, just like rose petals).

From my 4/19/19 posting “The white and the red”, in a section on the genus Cornus, of dogwoods (with an extended quotation from Wikipedia):

(#1) Cornus florida

A Christian legend of unknown origin proclaims that the cross used to crucify Jesus was constructed of dogwood. As the story goes, during the time of Jesus, the dogwood was larger and stronger than it is today and was the largest tree in the area of Jerusalem. After his crucifixion, Jesus changed the plant to its current form: he shortened it and twisted its branches to assure an end to its use for the construction of crosses. He also transformed its inflorescence into a representation of the crucifixion itself, with the four white bracts cross-shaped representing the four corners of the cross, each bearing a rusty indentation as of a nail, the red stamens of the flower representing Jesus’ crown of thorns, and the clustered red fruit representing his blood.

The legend is one in which God  the Father (through the Son, Jesus) designs a plant to recall to us the story of the crucifixion in considerable detail.

Icons of the cross. But then the idea of purposeful design of living things can be expanded to take in much simpler icons in the flower world — essentially, any flower with four petals, making a cross. (Roses, by the way, have five petals, like the flowers of the closely strawberry plants and cherry trees.) An enormous number of flowers are four-petaled, but one family of plants stands out because it got its botanical name from four-petaled flowers. From NOAD:

adj. cruciferousBotany relating to or denoting plants of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae, formerly Cruciferae). ORIGIN mid 19th century: from modern Latin Cruciferae (plural), from Latin cruxcruc- ‘cross’ + -fer ‘bearing’ (because the flowers have four equal petals arranged crosswise), + –ous.

(#2) Broccoli flowers

Among the plants in the family: arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, cress, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, radish, turnip.

Hellebores. From my 9/8/14 posting “I never promised you a rose garden”, a language-and-plants gift from an old friend: a photo of  a “rose garden”, described here:

Some actual roses (of the genus Rosa), plus primrose, Christmas rose, tuberose, and rosemary (none of them roses at all or botanically close to them or (for the most part) with names etymologically related to rose. A wonderful conceit.

The posting has a section on hellebores (genus Helleborus), species of which have common names like winter rose, Christmas rose, Lenten rose, and, yes, Paschal rose or Easter rose. And with a Wikipedia quote that provides a calendar explanation for these names:

Hellebores are widely grown in gardens for decorative purposes. They are particularly valued by gardeners for their winter and early spring flowering period [hence, winter, Christmas, Lenten, or Easter rose]; the plants are surprisingly frost-resistant and many are evergreen.

Hellbores come in white, dusky purple, and green.  An assortment of Helleborus hybridus flowers (in the rose to dark purple range), in vases:

(#3) From the Southern Living site on Helleborus hybridus (photo by Ralph Anderson): at the top, a variety in the dark purple (standing for sacrifice and suffering) of liturgical Lent (white and gold being the colors of rebirth for Easter itself)

Sheep music.The Paschal roses, now the Paschal lambs. From Wikipedia:

“Sheep may safely graze” (German: Schafe können sicher weiden) is a soprano aria by Johann Sebastian Bach setting words by Salomon Franck. The piece was written in 1713 and is part of the cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208. The cantata’s title translates The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire, and it is also known as the Hunting Cantata.

Like the same composer’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Sheep may safely graze” is frequently played at weddings. However, the cantata of which it forms a part was originally written for a birthday celebration, that of Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels. Bach was based at the nearby court of Weimar, and musicians from both courts appear to have joined in the first performance in Weißenfels.

… Franck’s words are given to mythological characters, in this case Pales, a deity of shepherds, flocks, and livestock. Pales compares the peaceful life of sheep under a watchful shepherd to the inhabitants of a state with a wise ruler.

The text, first in German, then in an English translation (from Wikipedia):

Schafe können sicher weiden
Wo ein guter Hirte wacht.

Wo Regenten wohl regieren
Kann man Ruh’ und Friede spüren
Und was Länder glücklich macht.

Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful Shepherd’s sight.

Those who rule with wisdom guiding
Bring to hearts a peace abiding
Bless a land with joy made bright.

There are settings for various instruments, and many many recordings. From which I’ve chosen three. The first is celebratory in tone: a sprightly performance on original instruments by the San Francisco early music ensemble Voices of Music. Featuring Susanne Rydén, soprano; Hanneke van Proosdij and Louise Carslake, recorders; William Skeen, viola da gamba; and Rodney Gehrke, baroque chamber organ. You can listen to it here.

The other two are deeply peaceful recordings, in tune with the visuals of the Jacquie Lawson animation.

First, pianist Leon Fleisher (1928 – 2020) playing the aria in an elegant transcription by Egon Petri — recorded and filmed 10/30/19 in the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins Univ. Watchable here.

Then, Leopold Stokowski’s (1882-1977) lush orchestral transcription of the aria (with José Serebrier, Stokowski’s protégé, conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra), which you can listen to here.


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