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The Very Revd Chris Chataway Dean of Perth

Christmas 1994 saw the first performance of Martin Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. At that performance, Music Director Paul Salamunovich told the audience, “Until now, Vittoria’s O Magnum Mysterium has been the most beautiful and well recognized setting of this text composed to date. I predict that will change after tonight.”

The setting made Lauridsen’s reputation, not just because of the beauty of the music, but the way the setting expresses complex theological and emotional subtleties from the text. In spite of Salamunovich’s hyperbole, there have been many fine settings of these words since Vittoria, and I would include Francis Poulenc (1896-1963) and our own WA composer, Lydia Gardiner, who set these words in a commissioned work by the Cathedral’s Arts Foundation in 2020. But I would like to explore with you some of the meaning Lauridsen extracts from this text through his music.

The words are a responsory for Christmas services in the Roman Breviary. They express adoration at the moment of the incarnation, as if we are looking over the scene of the newborn baby, like the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel. The use of the words ‘animals’ and ‘sacrament’ next to each other, denotes the humility and yet profound significance in this divine, yet fully human birth. This royal birth is the opposite of worldly, human royalty, and inaugurates the proclamation of reversals that will underpin Jesus’ message, a message that will be greeted with joy and sorrow, hope and anxiety; a message that will culminate in the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

Lauridsen’s provides music that explores these themes. We feel the intimacy and stillness of the manger scene through the close harmony and tentative long choral notes of Lauridsen’s opening bars. They capture that moment of intimacy between parent and child once the stress of labour and birth is over. And this beauty, closeness and harmony will carry through the piece to the final alleluia, sung almost like a lullaby in the final bars, hushing the baby Jesus to sleep.

However, there is uncertainty that also underlies this harmony. In tonal western music one note dominates harmony. It is called the tonic note, and from that is derived the tonic key. You will often see the tonic key named in a composition’s title such as ‘Standford in G’. This denotes the tonic key of the piece, even if it ventures into many other keys, G will remain its harmonic centre.

For Lauridsen’s carol, the key is D major. You would then, expect to hear the tonic note, D, and usually as the lowest note of a D major chord. The rest of the harmony and chords will be built around it. For the listener, the tonic note in the bass provides a foundation, a centre, around which the resultant melodies and harmonies will soar. But Lauridsen delays the tonic and we hardly hear it sung in the first two-thirds of the music. So while the harmonies are beautiful, without that tonic note in the bass, it leaves the listener with uncertainty, a feeling of the tenuousness of this beauty and intimacy. It is as if the structure is floating on a lake, rather than firmly anchored on the shore. It poignantly expresses the magnum mysterium of the text. The Lord of heaven and earth is now enfleshed but ‘How can this be?’ as Mary asks Gabriel in Luke 1:34. So too we are left wondering.

It is when the choir sing O beata virgo (O blessed virgin) that the first truly discordant harmony occurs, recalling that there is a doom upon the child that will be the cause of sorrow for Mary. (Luke 2:36). But this is temporary, for the music soon builds to the climax of the piece, when the words Jesu Christum (Jesus Christ) are sung in full volume and the discordant longing is resolved. This is the full revelatory moment and immediately the basses sing the tonic note, at the very bottom of a singer’s range, a drone to underpin the majestic music above. Only then do we realise what has been missing but is now provided. The four-part singing is split into eight parts, with notes spread across the whole range possible for the singers; from the lowest the basses loudly singing their pedal D, to the sopranos singing alleluias soaring above like the angels above (Luke 2:13). The effect is expansive, majestic and glorious, as if unveiling the glory and divinity mysteriously enfleshed in this moment of Christ’s birth.

Heaven is unveiled for just a moment, before a curtain is drawn, and the melodies and harmonies return to the opening theme. Again, the tonic note disappears, and the intimacy, and uncertainty, return, but not as before. Alleluiias are sung softly, like a lullaby, intertwined with the now familiar opening theme, echoing the moment of revelation we have just experienced and which we cannot forget. The tonic note D only reappears at the final chord, softly sung, at the bottom of the bass’s range, an almost imperceptible presence, but a final theological statement that the presence of Christ will be our foundation into eternity.

Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium will be sung at the Cathedral’s Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Sunday 17 December, Saturday 23 December and Sunday 24 December at 7.30pm. Please note, there is no longer ticketing for these services.

O Magnum Mysterium graphic

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