NOTE TO READERS: I originally posted this on Augenblick, in slightly different form, on 10 December 2013. I find that it’s been harder and harder to conjure the Christmas spirit as I’ve gotten older, particularly these last couple of years, with so much political horror and ugliness elbowing in on all fronts. As of the beginning of this week, I hadn’t written any new posts for nearly four months and while getting myself back into the groove, I surveyed some past offerings and landed on this one. The sights and sounds of the video were a balm, and really do bear repeating. I hope you’ll agree.
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. Many composers, dating back to the Renaissance, have set the text to music. In 1993, American composer Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale to compose a piece that would have its première at the group’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.
One of Lauridsen’s goals was to express the Virgin Mary’s ‘significance and suffering’ through the music. His ultimate decision: to do so with a single note. He explains:
“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.”
Indeed, it is. For me it’s otherworldly, and I’m envious of those of you who will now hear this piece, and that 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.
Lauridsen, again in his own words: “[I]n 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.