The creative genius of Morten Lauridsen

The music on the radio certainly hit the spot. Listening in Dublin, Valerie Kenny texted the show. “Standing here transported by that absolutely heart-achingly beautiful choral piece!” she wrote.

t was the choir Polyphony performing O Magnum Mysterium, a setting of the chant from the Matins of Christmas.

The text – ‘O great mystery and wondrous sacrament’, venerating the Virgin Mary and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ – had been the starting point for many composers through the centuries. A version from 1572 by the Spanish priest Tomás Luis de Victoria, would have been the best-known.

In 1994, Morten Lauridsen, from America’s Pacific North West but with roots in Denmark, had not long begun his term as resident composer with the Los Angeles Master Chorale when he was tasked with setting a piece for their Christmas concert.

To work on his first commission for them, he retreated to his bolthole, his shack, as he calls it, on Waldron, one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, a place with neither electricity nor running water.

And there, on a $50 piano, and mostly by candlelight, he composed the music to match the words of O Magnum Mysterium.

Just before its first performance, the choir’s conductor, the late Paul Salamunovich, turned to the audience to predict that what they were about to hear would have as profound an impact as De Victoria’s setting. It would be its 20th-century equivalent. How right he has been proved.

Lauridsen found inspiration for what he has described as “a quiet song of profound inner joy” in a Spanish Renaissance painting, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose by Francisco de Zurbarán.

“It’s just a bunch of stuff on a table,” he said, “but it knocked my socks off.”

The fruit, the orange blossom, the flower, the cup of water alongside were contemporary religious imagery. The rose was Mary, the water signified purity, the orange blossom renewed life.

Lauridsen sought similar directness in his composition. The structures of the Gregorian chant helped create his template. There is constant ebb and flow. The composer develops his harmonies, building a soundscape that is both hauntingly beautiful and reassuringly soothing, one reviewer noting its vocal lines arch out like fan vaulting.

“I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener,” Lauridsen said, “to illumine through sound.” That it most certainly does, taking the emotions to places seldom reached.

Though it’s rooted in the Christmas liturgy, like Handel’s Messiah, the sheer musical excellence of Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium allows space for it at any time of the year.

Its huge success – the sheet music is the biggest-selling choral score in the US – was followed by another much-loved piece, Lux Aeterna, an “intimate work of quiet serenity”, which has been compared to Fauré’s Requiem.

Based on five sacred texts, it’s full of warmth, with the emphasis on light. Another wonderful example of the creative genius of Morten Lauridsen, Lux Aeterna gives the title to a collection of his work on Hyperion (CDA67449). Featuring 14 tracks in all, it concludes with the performance of O Magnum Mysterium that so moved Valerie Kenny last Sunday morning.

George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

Indo Review

Next Post

New York Drywall Installer Arrested for Failing to Provide Workers’ Comp Insurance

Sat Sep 26 , 2020
New York State Inspector General Letizia Tagliafierro has announced the arrest of a capital region area drywall installer who allegedly failed to provide legally required workers’ compensation insurance to his employees. Dennis R. Hammonds, 40, owner and operator of Hammonds Drywall LLC of Schenectady, N.Y., was arrested and arraigned today […]
Elephant Insurance Discounts Auto Coverage for Work From Home Customers

You May Like