O great mystery!

by Kevin Birnbaum

Nativity_at_NightNativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1465-c. 1495)

Merry Christmas Eve! My gift to you below: a recording of Morten Lauridsen’s glorious setting (composed in 1994) of the Christmas text O Magnum Mysterium. A few years ago, Lauridsen wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the genesis of the piece:

For “O Magnum Mysterium,” I wanted to create … a deeply felt religious statement, at once uncomplicated and unadorned yet powerful and transformative in its effect upon the listener. …

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. [Note: In this recording, this occurs at 2:51 and 3:15.] 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.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart … a transforming spiritual experience within what I call “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

May your celebration of the great mystery of Christmas be truly bright and blessed! Enjoy the music!

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.
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. Alleluia!

P.S. For what it’s worth, my go-to recording of this piece can be found here.