Morten Lauridsen and His Illuminating Impact

In the last decade of the 20th century, the composer Morten Lauridsen wrote a series of pieces while serving a residency for the Los Angeles Master Chorale that have had a lasting and international impact. This year the choral world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the largest of these milestones, Lux Aeterna. What has given the Lauridsen aesthetic its power to connect and attract? And why does it continue to move performers, composers, and listeners?

On April 13, 1997, a Los Angeles audience experienced the world premiere of a piece that has since established itself internationally as one of the defining choral compositions of our time. Two decades after the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) and then-director Paul Salamunovich first performed it, Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna has lost none of its aura: as the title suggests, this is luminous music, known to captivate listeners so completely that fans often recall the exact moment when they first heard it. It remains a powerful magnet for choral ensembles as well as music lovers around the world.

Lauridsen and SalamunovichLauridsen with former LA Master Chorale director Paul Salamunovich.

Lux Aeterna consistently gets programmed about 75 times each year (about 50 of those in the United States), according to its publisher, Peermusic Classical. In 1994, Lauridsen wrote a shorter a cappella work for LAMC that shares some features with Lux Aeterna: the Christmas motet about the paradox of Jesus’ incarnation, O Magnum Mysterium. It ranks as the highest-selling item in the catalogue of Peermusic’s distributor, Theodore Presser, ever since the company was founded in 1783. But such commercial success is merely one measure of the Lauridsen phenomenon. It underscores the enormous resonance his aesthetic has in the world of contemporary choral music.

“It’s fascinating how Lauridsen has taken the musical building blocks that have been with us through the ages—lines inspired by plainchant, counterpoint worthy of Orlando di Lasso, harmony that acknowledges Brahms and Duruflé—and created language distinctly his own,” says Grant Gershon, who has helmed LAMC since 2001. For Gershon, Lux Aeterna, O Magnum Mysterium, and the settings of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry in Les Chansons du Rose “sound like nobody else and feel like they’ve existed forever. I marvel at that!”

Surprised by Beauty

Apart from the factors usually associated with a composer’s enduring success—the quality of inspiration, expressive immediacy that is grounded in technical mastery—the capacity for wonder should not be overlooked. Least of all when the composer is Morten Lauridsen. At 74, he maintains an openness to being surprised and astonished by the world around him that remains as sharp as when he was a young student writing his first compositions for the University of Southern California (USC) Thornton Chamber Singers.

“They were the rock stars on campus. Imagine running home to my little place as a college student and writing pieces that they could sing,” Lauridsen recalls. The decision to embark on the risky course of becoming a composer itself resulted from a moment of letting himself be receptive to the surprise of unexpected beauty.

New Morten Lauridsen Releases


Ever since the LA Master Chorale released its Grammy-nominated recording of Lux Aeterna under Paul Salamunovich in 1998 (RCM), there's been an outpouring of releases of Lauridsen's choral music. The discography of his compositions now totals more than 200 recordings. Among the more recent additions to the Lauridsen catalog, two in particular stand out.

Last November saw the release of Prayer: The Songs of Morten Lauridsen  (Cowitz Bay Recordings), which presents his art songs in settings for solo voice or vocal duet. Thus there's a version of O Magnum Mysterium for solo soprano (a revision of the original, not a simple transcription) with the composer accompanying at the piano. Another gem is the title track, which is actually the composer's third treatment of a moving poem by his close friend Dana Gioia (California's poet laureate and former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts). “Prayer,” the poet's elegy for his first son, who died at four months, was initially set as a solo song; Lauridsen followed this with a choral version. This most recent reworking resulted in a duet for male and female voices, which is paired here with a duet version of another Lauridsen favorite, his setting of James Agee's “Sure on this Shining Night.” Also included is the composer's most recent music, “Ya eres mίa” ("Now You Are Mine”), to a text from a sonnet by Pablo Neruda.

The 2014 release Reincarnations: A Century of American Choral Music by Seraphic Fire (SFM) presents Lauridsen—represented by his Mid-Winter Songs—in a fascinating context of fellow American choral composers. The title refers to the Samuel Barber work included. Alongside the music by these two giants are new works that they inspired. The contributions from young composers Jake Runestad, Dan Forrest, Nico Muhly, Frank Ticheli, and Shawn Crouch point to a healthy variety of future directions for American traditions.

A native of Colfax in southeastern Washington State, Lauridsen spent the summer after his freshman year at Whitman College working as a firefighter for the Forest Service. His post was in Gifford Pinchot National Forest (south of Mount St. Helens), where he kept watch from a tower for over ten weeks. In Michael Stillwater’s documentary portrait Shining Night, the composer remembered an epiphany he experienced in the midst of his profound isolation. From the tower, Lauridsen commanded a vision he described as “beauty beyond description—to be above the clouds with these magnificent snowy peaks.”

A desire to catch hold of such beauty—and what it illuminated—has been the engine for Lauridsen’s life as an artist. He decided to transfer to USC in the early 1960s, where, despite not yet having a single complete piece of his own to show, he persuaded Bartók scholar Halsey Stevens to take him on as a composition student for a trial semester. Lauridsen’s first published opus was, curiously, a sonata for trumpet.

It was during these student years that the music scene in downtown Los Angeles began to be transformed by the Music Center on Bunker Hill, which opened in 1964. Roger Wagner founded LAMC to serve as its resident choral ensemble, and Lauridsen frequented their concerts as a student. Since then his career has been tightly enmeshed with LAMC as well as USC, where he joined the Thornton School of Music faculty in 1972 and eventually became chair of the composition program (from 1990 to 2002, which includes the period in which he wrote Lux Aeterna). He continues to hold a position there as distinguished professor and this spring received the USC Associates Award for Artistic Expression—adding to a list of distinctions that includes the National Medal of Arts (2007) and the presidency of the World Choir Games in 2013.

USC Thornton Chamber Singers—the same group that had awed him as a student, by this time including a young Grant Gershon within its ranks—premiered Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs in 1980. The first of eight large-scale, multi-movement choral compositions that feature in his oeuvre (including Lux Aeterna), Mid-Winter Songs sets verse by poet and novelist Robert Graves and exemplifies the central importance for this composer of poetry as a creative stimulant. It was also the first of his compositions to be performed by LAMC (under Roger Wagner in 1985). Lauridsen fondly recalls that Chorus America helped make a second LAMC performance possible through a program, temporarily funded by special grants in the ‘90s, that underwrote additional performances of new music.

The motet O Magnum Mysterium forms an intriguing counterpart to the illuminated sound world of Lux Aeterna. Marshall Rutter commissioned the piece in honor of his wife Terry Knowles, who was then the executive director of LAMC. The composer has compared his inspiration here to Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose by the Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán—a work in which simple, everyday objects are used to project “an aura of mystery, powerful in its unadorned simplicity, its mystical quality creating an atmosphere of deep contemplation.” The overall effect—“immediate, transcendent, and overpowering”—struck Lauridsen as similar to his goal as a composer: to write music that is able “to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.”

Illumining Through Sound

The connection forged by Mid-Winter Songs led to Lauridsen being appointed as LAMC’s composer-in-residence from 1995 to 2001, during the late Paul Salamunovich era. Up to that point, as Lauridsen recalls it, he had been quietly following his path of “setting wonderful texts to music.” Suddenly, “everything exploded after I turned 50 [in 1993] and became composer-in-residence under Paul.” The impetus for this life change was Lux Aeterna, his first major project in the LAMC position, which he dedicated to the Master Chorale and Salamunovich. After unveiling it in April 1997, they recorded a Grammy-nominated performance.

Like Brahms in A German Requiem, Lauridsen fashioned a personalized requiem—the work commemorates the loss of his mother—even while setting very old texts. The contrast between the ancient and the contemporary and personal is even more striking with Lux Aeterna, since the texts are all “distanced” by virtue of being in the original Latin, while Brahms used German translations of the Biblical texts he culled.

Lauridsen and BushMorten Lauridsen received the National Medal of Arts from then-president George W. Bush in 2007.

Strictly speaking, the five-movement Lux Aeterna isn’t even a Christian requiem, though that is clearly a model for the spiritual arc it traces. Lauridsen focuses on imagery of light throughout (the title, after all, means “eternal light”). There is no place here for the terrifying darkness of the Dies Irae sequence. “I simply wanted to write a beautiful, quiet meditation on the theme of illumination,” Lauridsen says, “so that it would have a transformative experience and connect people with something beyond.”

Lux Aeterna, which might also be characterized as a cantata, continually juxtaposes this sense of a quest for meaning in today’s world with a kind of timelessness. With its allusions to archaic modes and techniques and what the composer calls “the purity and directness of Renaissance sacred music vocabulary,” Lux Aeterna was directly inspired by “the special sound Paul was able to get from the Chorale,” Lauridsen recalls, noting that Salamunovich was a renowned expert in medieval and Renaissance music.

In the Beginning Was the Word

“Besides music, my other great love has been poetry,” Lauridsen remarks. It’s an essential part of his life: he devotes time every day to immersing himself in poetry and is known for reading poems aloud at the start of his classes. “What better combination for me to carve a niche in choral music than the human voice, the most personal of all instruments, combined with poetry? I choose the poets I set very carefully—Graves, Lorca, Neruda— and the themes of their work that I set are universal themes, whether it’s the varieties of love—unrequited, as in the Madrigali, or personal love in my settings of Neruda—or spirituality, the images of eternal life in Lux Aeterna. These images are wonderful for a composer to work with.”

This responsiveness to poetry—and, in a larger sense, the composer’s special sensitivity to language—is a key feature of Lauridsen’s aesthetic. Some of this relates to the ancient tradition of “word-painting,” which Lauridsen clearly emulates in his modern take on the Renaissance madrigal. Madrigali: Six Fire Songs on Italian Renaissance Poems for a cappella chorus (1987) in one sense occupies the opposite end of the spectrum from Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium: Set to decidedly worldly texts, this cycle revels in a contrapuntal intricacy and unsettled harmonic landscapes that emphasize imagery of desire and dark longing—a far cry from the illuminated serenity of the sacred music pieces. Lauridsen even devised a special “fire-chord” (a B-flat minor triad with an added C) as the musical pivot point and symbol for the love that remains unrequited at the end of the cycle.

The Latin texts of Lux Aeterna are no less important as a spur to Lauridsen’s imagination. These texts are saturated by imagery of light, and at the cantata’s center is the mystical light “O Nata Lux,” which draws from the Gospel of John and also alludes to the Genesis idea of light’s role in Creation. Significantly, Lauridsen sets this apart as Lux Aeterna’s only entirely a cappella section. This luminous otherworldliness is set in relief by the use of structural pairing, with the joyful, extroverted, accompanied music of “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” immediately following as a counterpart.

Lauridsen emphasizes that the wide stylistic variety of the texts he chooses to set has led to a corresponding variety of musical styles. Indeed, the soundscape of Lux Aeterna could hardly be confused with the atonal touches of his Lorca cycle (where light and night imagery are contrasted) or the completely different sound worlds of the Madrigali or the Mid-Winter Songs.

“I gear all of my musical materials to complement, enhance, and become intertwined by all aspects of the texts,” the composer explains, “including the language, themes, and history of the texts.”

Widespread Impact

The strength of Lauridsen’s aesthetic can be seen in how it has attracted admirers who write in a striking variety of musical styles.

Lux Aeterna at Chorus America Conference

In its June 22 Host Concert at the 2017 Chorus America Conference, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will present Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeternain its first performance with full orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall. For the program marking the composition’s 20th anniversary, LAMC artistic director Grant Gershon commissioned complementary works as responses to its legacy, including newly commissioned music from the LAMC's first artist in residence, Eric Whitacre.  
Whitacre

Eric Whitacre considered Lauridsen a model from the start of his formation as a choral composer, in his early 20s. He was also fortunate, he recalls, to receive encouragement and generous advice from the older mentor, and they remain good friends. For his contribution to the anniversary program, I Fall, Whitacre collaborated with another friend who has been significant in his artistic evolution: poet and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri, who is also a scholar of medieval history. I Fall began as a poem reflecting on the death of Silvestri’s wife. The moment he saw the poem, says Whitacre, “I was moved to start improvising on it right away."

Written with the voices of the Master Chorale in mind, it is also part of a larger work in progress, The Sacred Veil, whose title, the composer explains, refers to the “ribbon of energy between the world of the living and those who have passed beyond, and at times of birth or death the veil becomes very thin.” When completed, The Sacred Veil will be a composition of about 70 minutes.


Childs

William Edward (“Billy”) Childs, a Los Angeles-based composer and jazz pianist who studied with Lauridsen at USC and remains a close friend, writes a very different kind of music. “My own language is influenced by Bach and also Hindemith and Ravel,” says Childs, “but I’ve always been struck with how [Lauridsen] can write something straightforward that moves people. A jazz correlative would be Bill Evans, who never plays an unnecessary note.”  Childs was intrigued by the opportunity to engage with Lux Aeterna in his a cappella piece for the concert, In Gratitude (to texts he wrote himself). “The theme of Lux Aeterna is eternal light, and I wanted to have a theme dealing with something that expands ourselves as human beings. So I thought of the concepts of gratitude and forgiveness.”


Smiley

Versatile singer-composer Moira Smiley was also commissioned by Gershon to write a new piece, Time in Our Voices, for the anniversary program. Although she never studied with Lauridsen, she finds his influence undeniable. “Lauridsen's music feels as giant as the cosmos, and as intimate as an emotional conversation with a friend,” she says. “When preparing to write Time in Our Voices in honor of his great Lux Aeterna, I wanted to honor that extraordinary combination of grandeur and tender presence. It was a big part of why I chose to write about a human lifetime, divide the piece into several movements, and weave the intimacy of mobile phone recordings of personal stories into it.”


Trumbore

The work of another former Lauridsen student, Dale Trumbore, will be part of the Conference’s Friday Concert. Trumbore composed Breathe in Hope for the LA Children’s Chorus, which premiered the piece in May and will perform it again June 23 at St. John’s Cathedral in LA. The recipient of a 2017 Morton Gould Young Composer Award, Trumbore studied in the graduate program at USC under Lauridsen and notes that “his presence at USC has put choral music and vocal writing at the forefront of what the music department does. Here I was able to concentrate on writing for the voice.” Recently, Trumbore released an anthology of her choral music, How To Go On.

In Lauridsen’s classes, she says she was impressed by “his deep appreciation for the text he is setting—which is something you sense from hearing his music and from his teaching. Putting the poetry before the music when you’re writing for voice is something I pretty much adopted from my own work.” As to Lauridsen’s sound, Trumbore especially admires “the cultivated sense of a style in his music. When you hear his music, you know it’s by him. It’s not easy to have written in a wide range—and there are stylistic differences in his pieces—and still to have that recognizable sense of style. It’s a trait that separates out the really wonderful composers.”

Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo recalls getting to know Lauridsen's music while studying in London in the early 2000s. Gjeilo singles out the two main aspects he loves about it: “the warmth of his music and his incredible melodic sense. A piece like Sure on This Shining Night, which is my own favorite, has a warm, beautiful melody with elegantly flowing vocal and piano accompaniment, and it's both passionate and peaceful at the same time.”

“What stands out about his approach to choral composing is his respect for the voice—for line, for melody,” offers Shawn Kirchner, a long-term tenor with LAMC who followed in Lauridsen's footsteps as the ensemble’s composer-in-residence from 2012-15. “One could also call this approach a reverence for song itself. Singers are amazingly versatile in what they can do with their voices, but nothing will ever replace the basic wired-in aspect of singing: the fact that the voice wants to sing line, the arc of a phrase, a melodic curve. There are lines in Lauridsen that feel like a privilege to sing, such as the opening melody in Sure on This Shining Night. It's a visceral experience, almost as if the material reaches inside you and compels you to offer up the very best you have to give.”

Welsh composer Paul Mealor points to Lauridsen’s signature harmonic language. “I am drawn, as indeed are thousands of people, to his ability to bring a new view on harmony that is rooted in the past. I think this is his lasting appeal—the combination he brings of past, present, and future. He has an innate ability, through melody and harmony, to capture and recapitulate, in essence, the entire history of Western classical choral music. His works sing with a craftsman's repose and an artist’s ear, with a gentle forcefulness and a spiritual inevitability.”

Lauridsen’s dedication to teaching, in his decades at USC and through hundreds of residencies with institutions around the world, has been an important contribution to the choral scene. The success of his students is striking, and the independence shown by their own music is further testament to his impact today. Dale Trumbore, one of Lauridsen’s former graduate students at USC, received a 2017 Morton Gould Young Composer Award. “He never tried imposing his style or opinions but was always very open,” she says. “His deep appreciation for the text he is setting has had an impact on my own work for voice.”

Eric Whitacre, who currently holds the role of artist-in-residence with LAMC, and contributed his latest choral work, I Fall, to the Lauridsen anniversary program, remembers that the first piece by Lauridsen that captivated him was the Madrigali. “I was so enchanted and immediately started borrowing harmonic language from him when I was 21. After my piece Go Lovely Rose was performed in 1992 at a choral convention, Skip [as Lauridsen is known by his colleagues] was sitting next to me on the bus and complimented it. It was like meeting Paul McCartney! He would invite me, this kid who was nothing, to come to USC and talk poetry and composition and life over the next several years.”

Whitacre believes Lauridsen’s appeal comes down to “impeccable craft—he knows how to write for the voice like few people ever have—and the profound humanity of his music, starting with his choice of poetic texts. Even in the sacred texts he sets, Skip concentrates on their humanity. The emotional intelligence of the work is universal and has a timeless quality.”

“There is enough in Lauridsen’s music that you want to come back to something so clear and truthful,” says Karen Thomas, a composer and the artistic director of Seattle Pro Musica. “It appeals to a lot of people, but is also approachable by many different levels of performers. His compositions are written at a high level that you can also do with less accomplished singers. So they attract the spectrum from professional choirs to high school choral groups.”

Lauridsen himself wonders about the reasons his music has found such widespread resonance with listeners and performers. “I can point to various technical facets and to the texts, all of the things that combine to result in the completed work,” the composer ventures. He also recognizes “something in this music that is indefinable seems to reach deeply into people and to provide them with a very transforming and personal experience.” But he can’t explain what that is. “As creative artists, we like to strive to go to that point beyond words, which cannot be explained. All I know is that I need to go deeply into myself to come up with a work and somehow that gets translated into notes on a page and then it’s transformed by conductors and singers.”

Above all for Lauridsen, the ripple effect Lux Aeterna has created is a surprising joy because of the connections so many different listeners have made with this music. “It has changed my life in ways I never expected.”


Thomas May, is a writer, critic, educator, and translator. Along with writing essays regularly for such institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Juilliard School, he serves as the English editor for the Lucerne Festival and a critic for Musical America andThe Seattle Times.

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