Morton Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium

Morton Lauridsen is known today as one of the leading choral composers, due to his extensive collection of works, recordings and awards he’s picked up along the way. By far the most popular piece to come from Lauridsen’s pen is his setting of O Magnum Mysterium. 

Morton Lauridsen (b. 1943) is an LA-born composer. He is currently a distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He has received medals, awards and honorary doctorates from a plethora of different institutions and organisations over the course of his career. Whilst growing up, Lauridsen didn’t consider a career in music, and he initially studied English and History at university. After making his career change slightly later in life, Lauridsen graduated from his music degree and began teaching composition.

To date, Lauridsen is one of the most frequently performed living composers in the world. His large catalogue of works span a number of different genres including concertos, orchestral works, and chamber works. Arguably, Lauridsen’s most influential works are his choral pieces. Undoubtedly his more performed work is his setting of O Magnum Mysterium. 

Composed as a commission from the LA Master Chorale in 1994, O Magnum Mysterium is most famous for the original SATB choral version. However, this work has also been orchestrated for wind orchestra and brass band, which are both popular with instrumental ensembles. The text of O Magnum Mysterium is, at its core, a chant used at Christmastime. It is used as the plainsong antiphon for Midnight Mass (ie – it is sung before readings). The text tells of the birth of Jesus:

Latin Original

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

iacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera

meruemrunt portare

Dominum lesum Christum.

Alleluia!

English Translation

O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

was worthy to bear

our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Alleluia!

The score presents a musical dichotomy between old and new. Due to the roots of O Magnum Mysterium, there are clear points in which Lauridsen is utilising Gregorian Chant, for example his use of the lydian mode, which can be heard initially from the opening soprano line. The modern side of this work can be heard from Lauridsen’s use of ethereal harmonies and dense sustained lines, which culminate in ‘heavenly’ cluster chords. The combination of both the old and new creates one of the most resonating settings of this text that’s ever been created.

The reciting tone, which is introduced at the beginning of the work from the sopranos, is a slow-moving line based around A. The opening reciting tone is repeated throughout the piece, and this gives emphasis on the word ‘mystery’. This word is repeated twice in just the opening line (and again when it is repeated), and Lauridsen’s use of melismatic text setting here is prevalent and incredibly effective. Lauridsen follows this trend throughout, and there are some very striking melismatic sections that follow. The words Lauridsen chooses to draw out are interesting, with ‘wonderful’, ‘mystery’, and ‘Alleluia!’ being the most used for this purpose.

Although composed for SATB choir, the voices are split within their sections, which is what creates the dense layers of voices. From about bar 10 onwards, there is always a voice (usually the basses) that is singing the note D. This perhaps is a nod to the Medieval influence of ‘oblique organum’, where one voice would stay on the final tone of the piece, whereas the upper voices would be the moving parts. This anchor in the bottom voices creates a base for the voices to layer onto one another, creating the rich, ethereal harmonies that are built up from the higher voices.

The main climax of the piece is built up for some time with the use of voice imitation and slowly building chord progressions. The text used for the climax celebrates the birth of ‘our Savious, Jesus Christ’, and as the work draws to an emotional close, the choir repeat the word ‘Alleluia!’. The work ends on the tonic chord, with the tenors leading on the resolution. Although O Magnum Mysterium is purposefully set in the style of a Gregorian chant, it is also undeniably modern in its presentation of harmony. Lauridsen describes this work as a ’20th Century counterpart’ to previous settings of this text (from the likes of Fauré and Vittoria). The strong foundations of this work hark back to old musical traditions, that are still very much alive today, and it’s composers like Lauridsen that are keeping them alive. I shall complete this blog with a closing quote from Lauridsen about O Magnum Mysterium:

‘I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.’ 

I’d like to dedicate this blog to Tom Scrupps, who loves this work very much – enjoy!

Happy Reading!

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