Choral Magic

I love singing classical* choral music, and music that refers back to classical themes. (OK, vocal jazz fans, throw the produce now if you want.) About ten years ago, I made the musical acquaintance of a composer named Morten Lauridsen and fell in love. The semi-pro chorus I sang with did his “Magnum Mysterium” as part of a Christmas concert. I’m not certain if his setting or de Victoria’s setting (1572) move me more. I’ve done both, and they are quite different treatments of the same text, with equal beauty and power.

Two years later the same chorus did Lauridsen’s cantata, “Lux Aeterna.” The central movement, “O Nata Lux” moved me to tears. The simplicity of the initial line shifts into a flowing, soaring harmonic pattern that resolves again into a gentle close that matches the text beautifully. The entire cantata flows well, even the parts that are fiendishly tricky to get the pitches to lock. (The opening two pages of the second movement are a capella and in tight dissonances that require the singer to memorize the pitches and aim for the correct dissonant, slightly sour, sound.) The first and fifth movements mirror each other, using different text to open and close the entire composition.

Now I’m leaning Lauridsen’s setting of the “Ubi Caritas et Amor.” He wrote it shortly after the “Lux Aeterna,” and you can hear very similar vocal patterns and movement in the two works, although the “Ubi Caritas” has more acceleration and deceleration within it. He begins with the plain chant and then runs variations around it, including some strikingly different but still lush passages based on the meaning of the text. If we (the chorus) can get everything to work, it will be breathtakingly beautiful. If we don’t it will still be breathtaking, in the way that a train plunging off a 500′ cliff is breathtaking. 😉

Lauridsen is my favorite modern choral composer. His works have a depth and lushness that appeals to me, and he is respectful of the older material he uses. At the moment I have his setting of Ranier Marie Rilke’s “Chansons de la Rose” playing, listening to the interplay of the parts as they flow and ebb. The movement “Dirait On” from this cantata is probably the most performed concert work of Lauridsen’s, although I wager more people have sung the “Magnum Mysterium.” The piece flows in a wave-like rhythm, first sung by the women and then the men. The piano accentuates the singers but doesn’t overwhelm them. The tone is much like the third movement of “O Nata Lux,” but without the sense of mystery. It is introspective love poetry.

Lauridsen’s music is less academic than Eric Whitaker and Ivo Antonigni, to name two other current choral composers. Whitaker’s music is bright-sounding, with tight dissonances that demand a great deal of the listener and singer. I appreciate what Whitaker is doing from a technical point of view, but I don’t have him on my top 100 play list.  Antognini’s works, at least those that have been performed in the US thus far, also sound more modern, even when using old texts, such as his “I Am the Rose of Sharon.” I enjoy singing Antognini, but his pieces don’t move me the way Lauridsen’s do. I can (and have) sung the opening figure of “O Nata Lux” to friends as a solo and they were spellbound. Whitaker and Antognini’s pieces don’t work like that. They are great music, but I wouldn’t use them to introduce someone to modern classical music.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal several years ago called Lauridesn the best unknown modern choral composer. I’m inclined to agree. His works are more difficult than they appear at first, not to listen to but to sing. They require close listening from the musicians, but remain approachable to listeners. If you enjoy choral music, or are simply curious,  there are a number of YouTube videos and recordings of his music. The LA Master Chorus recording of the “Lux Aeterna” was nominated for a Grammy in 1998. It is not the best recording of the “Lux Aeterna” because the instruments are over-miked as compared to the chorus, but overall it is not a bad album. The “Chanson” is probably the best recording I’ve heard of that motet. {FCC Disclaimer: I get no remuneration for suggesting this recording. I bought it to listen to the “Lux” when we were singing it several years ago} The Naxos recording also got good reviews – I have not heard it.

*Classical no longer means “composed between 1800 and 1918,” as it did when I first learned music history. Classical now refers to orchestral, chamber, and choral music that is not ancient, Baroque, or jazz-modern, or orchestral soundtracks or rock, as well as to the period between the Baroque and modern. So Beethoven, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Morten Lauridsen all compose classical music, even though only Beethoven is a Classical composer. Darn genre sorting strikes again.