O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen
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
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
I obviously work to make sure that every piece I share through this column is of a great quality, but gosh, this piece is just transcendent. Written by modern composer, Morten Lauridsen, in a shack on an island off the coast of California, it sounds in no way modern, but almost timeless.
The “O Magnum Mysterium” text is one of the staples of the choral repertoire. It has been famously set by Victoria, as well as Palestrina, Gabrielli, Poulenc, and just about every other major composer you can think of. I chose the Lauridsen arrangement because of how its very construction serves to enhance the meaning of this well-loved text.
As Lauridsen himself explains in this fascinating video, this piece is not a complicated one. In terms of music theory, the main melody of the piece utilizes only three chords – and three of the most common chords in music at that – I, IV, and V. To put it in perspective, the most basic of pop songs usually utilizes four chords. It is as simple as a pop song. Simpler even.
Eventually we do get another chord or two, but the piece in general is simple. Perhaps even plain.
There are only two levels of complexity in the whole piece. The first is on the word, “Virgo” where we hear a single note that doesn’t fit into the key of the piece. It’s a sudden, beautiful, and agonizing dissonance, added into this otherwise simple and melodic piece as an allusion to the eventual pain of Mother Mary as she sees her Son hang on the cross. It is the shadow looming over this miraculous birth that this child, this Messiah unto us born, has come to save through sacrifice.
The other tiny bit of complexity in this piece is that Lauridsen, when placing those basic I, IV, and V chords, inverts them throughout almost the entirety of the piece. This means he basically takes these basic, simple chords, and puts them upside down. All of the notes of the chords are the same, but the note our ear expects to hear as the bottom note, the root of the chord, sits in a higher voice part.
I see this as an allusion to the fact that, through this simple birth, witnessed by animals in a manger, all of our expectations of the Christ were subverted. The first became last, and the lowly were lifted to places of honor.
From His conception, Jesus Christ has subverted every expectation we have had of Him. He came in weakness, a baby. He ate with tax collectors. He spent time with prostitutes and lepers. He turned over the temple tables. He died on a cross. His mother wept, His followers did not know how to move forward. From all they could tell, He had lost. It was over…
until He subverted our expectations yet again. He arose.
But we’re not quite there yet.
As we sit in the wonder of Advent, this story that has yet to begin – may we approach it as children, with no pretense of the story to come, hearing and discovering this Gospel as if for the first time. We might just come to know a Christ we didn’t quite expect.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.”
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church