While the original intent of this blog was to highlight meaningful moments in art–most specifically in music–what I’ve ended up doing more often than not is describing passages of music that are longer than a mere moment. This post, though, actually is about one moment, about one single note.
O Magnum Mysterium is a responsorial chant sung at Christmas. Over the years, dating back to the Renaissance, many composers have set this text to music. In 1993, American composer Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) received a commission from the president of the Los Angeles Master Chorale for a piece that would have its première at the Master Chorale’s Christmas concert in 1994. For his text he, too, selected O Magnum Mysterium, the Latin and English versions of which are below.
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
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.
In an article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2009, Lauridsen noted:
“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 stand 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.”
Frankly, I’m envious of those of you who will now hear this piece, and that otherworldly appoggiatura G-sharp, for the very first time. In this 2009 performance at King’s College, Cambridge, the moment comes twice, at 3:11 and again at 3:38. In the same WSJ piece, Lauridsen said that, “in composing [this ] music….I sought to impart…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.”
I think he succeeded. See what you think. And Merry Christmas.