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On Morten Lauridsen’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’…

December 21st, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Another year flies by and Christmas is upon us again with its gaudy mix of over-indulgence and introspection (with a cheery dose of political uncertainty added for extra measure). Each year I try to fashion a festive blog entry on a piece of Christmastide music that I find appealing, or interesting, or irritating, or something that solicits some sort of emotion in the run up to this most busy of holiday periods. Each year it becomes just a little more difficult as the pool of pieces becomes ever shallower, and this time is no different especially as it is the tenth year of writing one of these blogs. Where does the time go? Anyhow, I cast my mind to thinking of Christmas music and it didn’t take long to settle on a piece, mainly because I’ve been to several performances of it in the past month – Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium.

Now, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast early on – I’m not a huge fan of Lauridsen’s music – but that is a different story for a different day. What I will say is that I am a fan of this piece and if anything, the over-familiarity of this well-worn carol has somewhat dimmed its impact and the very fine piece of composition that it represents. For if any piece embodies the beginnings of a whole generation of composers, or a whole style or school of composition, then it may well be O Magnum Mysterium – arguably without this piece a whole American ‘sound’ of modern music may never have come into being. Perhaps I’m over-egging the Christmas pudding a little, but there is probably some truth in it.

For those not aware of Lauridsen or his music, he was born in 1943 and has spent most of his life on the west coast of America, either teaching in Los Angeles or living the rural life on a small island between Seattle and Vancouver. Although a respected composer from the 1970s onwards, it would be a series of works in the late 1980s and early 1990s that cemented his reputation and made him a household name in contemporary music (if that isn’t an oxymoron…) – the most prominent being O Magnum Mysterium. The work was written in 1994 for the Los Angeles Master Chorale (it is its twenty-fifth anniversary this year) and quickly became a favourite of choirs in the US and further afield shortly after. It is a setting of the responsorial chant from the service of Matins on Christmas day, which describes the ‘great mystery’ of the work’s title where the animals see the newborn Lord lying in a manger, and all that.

Lauridsen’s setting takes the ‘mystery’ of the title and creates a free and floating, rhapsodic and reflective piece that is both heavenly and corporeal at the same time – a heartfelt meditation on the words and events, all presented in a shimmering halo of light. In its best moments there is a simplicity and directness that is endearing and alluring, as the waves of soft polyphony caress the listener with warmth. It is poignant without being mawkish, emotional without being melodramatic and generally well considered at all points. Yes, it may be a bit too long and I would have loved a few more changes of harmony and texture, but in the main I wouldn’t change a note. When performed well, it lingers long after the performance and there aren’t too many contemporary choral pieces that you can genuinely say that about.

The old adage of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ perhaps applies to O Magnum Mysterium: maybe there have been too many performances by choirs not quite good enough to tackle this music, taking it too slow. For all its simplicity, the piece works best when performed by a choir of a really good standard who adhere to the tempo marking and what the composer actually wants – then it really ‘sings’ and everything seems to fit into place. Perhaps in it’s wake there have been too many pieces that sound too similar to this, both from America and further afield, to the point where the overall effect of the piece has been lessened – perhaps the mysterium isn’t there for audiences like it was in the 1990s. But that shouldn’t detract from a piece of real integrity and substance – two words not often used in 2019. All the best for Christmas and New Year.


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