Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium

There is some music which has the potential to exhaust us both emotionally and physically. However, I am not referring towards pieces that require or demand an abundance of technical prowess, but rather music that with it comes a heavy burden. For me, one of the most draining pieces of this nature was Stjepan Šulek’s trombone sonata 'Vox Gabrieli' which aims to chronicle the adventures and exploits of that famed archangel, Gabriel.  There are some who proclaim that it was he who heralded the birth of Jesus Christ.  Milton's Paradise Lost proclaims that it will be he who announces the return of the Lord via epic trumpet explosion.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment


I performed this work when I was a senior in college as a part of my required recital. Not to go into too much detail, but the end of the work follows a few ethereal and contrasting light melodic passages to bring forth a finale that is nothing short of diabolical. You can hear and feel the end of days occurring. In that final moment, when all is lost, there is a passage that floats through. To me it spoke volumes. In it I could see the tired angel turning a downward glance toward the condemned planet. In a single cathartic and sacrificial gesture he acknowledges the tremendous agony and suffering to be but a part of a greater plan.  He turns toward the culmination of his assignment.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Salvador Dali

Very heavy.

Performing it took a lot of me emotionally. It’s one of few pieces I felt an incredibly strong connection with on the trombone. I often found it useful to study a piece ad nauseum, to find every scrap of history or knowledge about the composer, the work, the subject, etc. I feel it makes us understand the full intent of the composer, particularly when the matter at hand is as grave as the Revelation.

But today is not about Šulek or his trombone sonata.  So, what do you get if you cross Bob Ross, Paul Bunyan, William Riker, Ernest Hemingway, and your grandfather?

The correct answer is Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943).  Lauridsen grew up in the Pacific Northwest, prior to becoming a composer professionally he worked for the forest service as a firefighter and lookout, stationed on a tower near Mount St. Helens.  He frequently spends time in the outdoors as he often frequents Waldron island, which is essentially the Pacific Northwest version of Amish country (without any Amish people and just the simple, plain living).

The video below is really fascinating, because he makes what he does sound so utterly simplistic. I spent the week listening to Lauridsen's works performed by the Elora Festival singers and I have to say my overall opinion of the man seems to be based firmly in my belief that somewhere deep within his psyche, he has communicated with Giovanni Gabrieli on an alternate plane of existence.  His music exhibits a profound ethereal quality, but at the same time manages to speak to a very human nature. Consider him a modern Gabrieli or perhaps a Gabrieli add9.

Or if you'd rather have a simpler analogy.
O Magnum Mysterium is a piece with a long tradition of many varied settings.  The text itself references the birth of Jesus Christ and was originally part of a type of Gregorian chant known as Responsorial. Essentially, the priest would sing a verse and the choir would chant the chorus, back and forth. This was all part of a nighttime liturgical service in the Catholic church that took place in the evening around Christmastime. The text for the work is as follows (translated from the Latin):

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
Christ the Lord.

I'm not sure what God looks like. I kinda get the feeling that many other people in this world have a better understanding of what God might be or represent than I do. There is, of course, no shortage of opinion on the matter and I don't really mean to delve into a religious debate through this entry. My own personal beliefs lie within the concept that God, as a omnipotent force in our universe, is one in the same with the forces that hold everything together. I think nothing could be more poetic and meaningful than considering God to be the very metaphorical fibers that bind atoms to one another.  And as we as a species continually unravel and discover these laws, the mystery persists and evolves. That is just such a powerful image to me.

I realize that's a bit of a jump from an old white guy with a beard sitting on a cloud, but like I said- I'm not here to start a religious debate. What I am here to say is that when I close my eyes and listen to this piece of music, I cannot describe what I see, but in what I hear I feel as though I can begin to comprehend the face of God. I'm not sure if that's what Dr. Lauridsen was setting out to achieve, but nevertheless he certainly made one hell of a Christmas carol.

Homework: Close your eyes, listen, visualize. Write what you see.

See you next Friday.


Note: The first video is a really interesting interview with the composer himself regarding his piece Dirait-on.  The second video is O Magnum Mysterium.