A gift to the world – Morten Lauridsen – O magnum mysterium

Some things are so good they must be shared, in this case, annually. The choral music of Morten Lauridsen fits this category well, especially as we approach the threshold of Christmas together.

From his home base on Waldron Island in the Sun Juan Archipelago in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, from where the composer watches the sun set most days, looking north to Canada, and south towards Puget Sound, Lauridsen creates choral masterpieces rooted firmly in the Western European choral tradition but with a twenty-first century chromaticism, all accompanying liturgical, even mystical texts.

Singers breathe deeply — as he is the master of the long phrase, an ambling lyrical vocal line drawing chorister and listener forward on a great journey, beyond the minutia of daily life towards light and love and beauty and . . . life, in all its aural and natural beauty. The word sumptuous only begins to capture the experience. I can listen to his compositions again and again. In quires and places where they sing (Book of Common Prayer) such music transports me out of myself into a realm of sublime beauty.

His setting of the Medieval Latin responsorial chant known as O magnum mysterium composed prior to the tenth century was part of the Matins service for Christmas Day. For much of the Middle Ages, Matins took place roughly at midnight; the Latin text describes the nativity scene in which Christ was born and laid in a manger, and as the text describes, animals were witnesses to the sacrament of his birth:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum. Alleluia!

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

Enjoy this marvellous performance set not in a cathedral or university recital hall, but in creation, a merging of liturgical music with the wonder of creation. let us join together, acknowledging the gift and splendour of creation as we move towards the celebratory Alleluia with which the work concludes. Lauridsen’s music takes us to the edge of miracle, to the very centre of creation.

The author Willa Cather uses text to describe a similar experience, of wonder, of miracle:

Miracles . . . seem to me to rest not so much upon . . . healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always ― Willa Cather, quote from Death Comes for the Archbishop.

May our eyes see and our ears hear what is there to discover, all around us. A blessed and wonder-filled Christmas to all.

Ken Gray

As a bonus, enjoy a different performance from the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge.

You may also enjoy a similar, evocative piece, On this shining night

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