Sitting comfortably on my back porch this afternoon, I’ve just finished listening to Morten Lauridsen’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium. If you don’t know this piece, stop right now, click over to Spotify or your favorite music service, and listen to it. You’ll be in good company—this piece, along with a handful of others from Lauridsen, have become the best-selling choral pieces from the publisher Theodore Presser in its more than 200 year history. In fact, Lauridsen has the distinction of being the most-frequently performed American choral composer. Kind of makes you sit up and take notice, doesn’t it?
Let me say right up front that the reason I’m writing about this is simple: the Glen Ellyn-Wheaton Chorale will sing this setting of O Magnum Mysterium in its Chistmas concerts this year. We last sang this piece in 2005, and it’s time to do it again. It will find its place this Christmas in a grouping of pieces that look at the events of the manger: Mary’s perspective as she looks on in wonder at the newborn Son, her gentle lullaby, set beautifully by John Rutter, and then O Magnum Mysterium. The text for this piece is an ancient one with its origins in the Christmas Day Matins service:
O great mystery and wonderful sacrament,
That animals should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger.
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
To bear Christ the Lord!
The musical setting is vintage Lauridsen: lots of close harmony that doesn’t seem to resolve according to traditional rules, but which adds up to create a shimmering tapestry of color that invites us in to its sonic world to contemplate the mysteries it communicates. Challenging to sing? Yes. But in the end, worth it all because of the wonder we singers experience, and the wonder we hope to communicate to those listening.
And that’s just one of the chorale’s pieces for Christmas. I could get excited about this—and it’s still August!