A little less than a year ago, Morten Lauridsen—my favorite contemporary classical composer by a long stretch—wrote a fascinating piece for the Arts and Entertainment section of The Wall Street Journal. Entitled “It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep,” it’s Lauridsen’s attempt to explain some of the thoughts that went into the composition of his famous "O Magnum Mysterium."
In particular, he focuses on the ways in which he was inspired by Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose,” rich with its Marian symbolism and what Lauridsen refers to as its “powerful unadorned simplicity.” And there is a fascinating section where he describes what he saw as the piece’s particular challenge, and the way he overcame it:
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.
The note he’s discussing occurs at the 3:10 mark in this spectacular recording by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. And while I’m not quite sure what he means by saying it’s the “most important note,” I strongly suspect that the majority of folks listening to the piece for the first time would recognize the moment Lauridsen’s talking about in his essay. It might not be a conscious recognition on the part of first-timers, but he has certainly succeeded in making that particular moment — that particular note — deeply (and profoundly) significant.
For those who have never heard the piece, I envy you. And I suggest listening to it with an “empty mind” the first time around. No matter how intriguing or intentional the ideas behind it may be — or how much the knowledge of these ideas might increase my appreciation of Lauridsen’s skill — it is as searingly beautiful a piece of vocal music in as one can possibly find. And that it was written in praise of Our Lady seems deeply fitting. Let’s begin by appreciating it on that level the first time through, shall we?