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.
--Morten Lauridsen, "It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep: The Influence of Zurbaran’s Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose
on Morten Lauridsen’s Composition 'O Magnum Mysterium',"
Wall Street Journal, February 2009
Christmas has always been a time that is steeped in traditions.
Growing up, we had many beautiful traditions: my mother made us matching Christmas pajamas; we had an annual ornament hunt; we made oodles of traditional cookies; we watched the traditional Christmas movies; we celebrated all the feasts in Advent that are so familiar and comfortable--Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santa Lucia, St. Nicholas Day; and we crafted gargantuan gingerbread creations (among whose ranks were the Titanic, a functioning lighthouse, a windmill, a full-size Candy Land board, to name a few).
Now that we are all growing up and growing older and growing away--spreading out of our house like pumpkin vines shooting over autumn leaves--our traditions remain, but in more subdued forms. They are not as necessary or important, they seem. Somehow, it is just our presence together that is important. And our traditions shape that time together, but they are not the point nor the purpose.
Last year began a new tradition for me, as it was the first time I think I'd ever heard Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium at Mass. I think. I can't be sure, because the melody sounds like every single heartbeat that's ever coursed through my body. So definitively pin-pointing when was the first time I heard it exactly is a bit difficult.
Last night, at Mass, the choir sang O Holy Night, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, etc. Songs that would formerly have satisfied me. But now, I think, Lauridsen's piece has spoilt me. I will no longer be able to celebrate Christmas properly without listening to O Magnum Mysterium (on repeat, of course).
I will never find another piece that truly encapsulates Christmas as Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium does.
None. Ever. Again. In. My. Life.
The wonder of Christmas is partly derived from the utter insanity it is, to think that one human life matters so much that still, thousands of years later, one man rises in front of a congregation to proclaim that, in this specific time:
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
there was this cataclysmic event: God entered into the world of men. The world seems to shiver at such a momentous thought: that grace Himself has entered the world, entered into the story of humanity, has become a player in history like you and I. How can the story be the same after that? How can we be so magnificent to believe that such particular, quantifiable events have such cosmic implications? And yet, there we gather, listening to the man announce the fullness of time.
The Word--eternal, mighty, consubstantial (oh comforting word! Word that assures us that no other being but God Himself was sent to save us) with the Father--came into our midst through the lowly portal of a woman's uterus, was born as a weak, helpless, innocent child, at the mercy of--well, everything. What baby can survive in the world if she is not tended to ceaselessly, nurtured tirelessly, and cherished, caressed, comforted, made to feel safe?
In his motet, Lauridsen somehow captures not only the immense wonder and glory of today, but also its heartbreak, and the momentous suffering and hardship that it portends.
Mary, writes Caryll Houselander (and I will poorly paraphrase her here), by giving Christ His humanity, has already started Him off on the journey that will end in the cross.
Here, even in the joyous celebration of new life, death is imminent; for this journey that begins today will eventually lead to a cross.
And yet, on this dark night, on this cold day, lit by thousands of little lights, and the warm glow of family surrounding one another, there is a love so real that it still reverberates through our world today.
It is a love that never fails.
Today, sorrows of the cross on the horizon are trumped by the sheer wonder of this love that has made itself so weak, in order to enter so intimately into this human family. It might give us pause to remember that this baby we adore, so innocent, fragile, and love-able, will hang as the man of sorrows--the afflicted servant--on Golgotha one day for our sake.
That is the moment that is captured in Lauridsen's appoggiatura g-sharp--a sharp, stinging grace note that sets the pure wonder of the day in high relief.
So we keep all these things, marveling at everything that we have heard and seen, pondering them in our hearts.