An Advent Tapestry–O Magnum Mysterium

The Nativity by Federico Fiori Barocci

My daughter and I attended the local Bellingham Chamber Chorale Christmas concert tonight, conducted by her choir teacher Ryan Smit.  Among the many beautiful pieces performed were three versions of O Magnum Mysterium, a Catholic Christmas Day Latin responsory that celebrates the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth.  Our favorite, and clearly the crowd’s favorite, was the Morten Lauridsen version.

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

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

The Lauridsen version can be heard here

The composer,  Morten Lauridsen, is a Washington state native who was born only a few miles from where my mother grew up in the wheat fields of the Palouse, and now lives in retirement in the San Juan Islands.  He wrote about his inspiration for this piece for the Wall Street Journal, by trying to write something that honored the words as much as the Still Life painted by Zurbaran honored the Virgin Mary.

Still Life by Zurbaran

In Lauridsen’s words:

“Zurbarán (1598-1664) is the painter of “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.” The objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart, as Zurbarán did before me, a transforming spiritual experience within what I call “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word “Virgo,” the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. It’s the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

“O Magnum Mysterium” had its 1994 premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Widely recorded with thousands of performances throughout the world since then, it owes much to its visual model, Zurbarán’s magnificent “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.” ”

I am very grateful to Mr. Lauridsen for his inspiration, his composition, the direction of Mr. Smit and the lovely voices of the Bellingham Chamber Choir who sung tonight.  You did indeed illumine through sound.