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Composers as varied as Palestrina, Poulenc and Maxwell Davies have set it to music, but perhaps the best known is the haunting setting for unaccompanied choir by Morten Lauridsen, the American composer of Danish ancestry.
O Magnum Mysterium is a text from the Holy Matins of Christmas describing the wonderment of the animals as they gaze on Christ: “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger!”
The story begins in 1994 when top Californian lawyer Marshall Rutter commissioned a piece in honour of his wife, Terry Knowles; she in turn was the executive director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The choir had signed Morten Lauridsen as its composer-in-residence – this was his first commission.
Seeking inspiration, Lauridsen had taken to visiting local art galleries and, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, he came across a painting that stunned him with what he described as its “unadorned, understated beauty” and “quiet radiance”. It was called Still Life With Lemons, Oranges And A Rose and was painted in 1633 by Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán. In its serene tranquility, Lauridsen found exactly what he was striving to translate into music.
Back in 1975, the then 32-year-old Lauridsen had bought an abandoned shop on the waterfront of a remote island off Washington State where he spent his summers contemplating and composing.
“Many people have said that the serenity there, the closeness with nature and the abiding calmness have affected my music, and I think that’s true,” he says. It was here and, in his words, “on a 50-dollar piano” that he wrote O Magnum Mysterium, a work he describes as “a quiet song of profound inner joy”.
There were, however, many distractions.
“While I was working on the piece, many visitors came by my cabin,” said Lauridsen. “I literally had to put a sign on the gate saying: ‘Composing – come back at 4.30’. I’d look out the window and see a little crowd of people looking at their watch, and then at 4.30: bang, bang, bang on the door and in they would come!”
O Magnum Mysterium was first performed on December 18, 1994 and was an instant success – its luminous, gently shifting harmonies perfectly expressing a timeless sense of serenity and wonder. Since then it has been recorded scores of times and performed thousands more, making it one of the most beloved pieces of Christmas music ever written
Did you know?
In his youth, Lauridsen’s twin passions were music and poetry; however, he decided to become a composer after spending 10 solitary weeks as a forest-service firefighter and look-out near Mount St Helens.
“It changed my life,” he said. “I decided to go into music while I was on the look-out and came down to LA to continue my studies following that decision.”
Hear it on…
Lauridsen Lux aeterna, et al.
Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia/ Stephen Layton
Haunting performances of a selection of Lauridsen’s best-known works.