Alleluia

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I’m embarking on what may well prove a fool’s errand tonight with this essay (for can one ever really explain the glimpses that catch at one’s heartstrings?)—but at the very least, it will hopefully excuse any odd contortions of my face and throat if we happen to sing this “Alleluia” someday in the same space.

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
the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

All through the Advent season of this year, I listened to Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium.” It wasn’t planned. I simply reached for it repeatedly; half the pieces I wrote for this season were composed to the quieting companionship of this song.

One evening, as I cleared my desk in preparation to whittle away at some words, I clicked the play button and put in my earphones—and was utterly caught off guard to find myself weeping about halfway through.

Because of this video interview of Lauridsen, I knew what to listen for in the piece. I had played the interview at least as many times as the King’s College recording I loved, and I was fascinated to hear how Lauridsen approached the commission to give this ancient responsorial chant a new setting.

“What can I do musically, on those two lines of text that every major composer has set, to have a profound effect with the simplest, most direct musical materials?” That’s the bar I set for myself. I worked on this piece for six months until I got it right. . . .

The toughest thing for me in this particular piece was the Virgin Mary.

I lost so much sleep on this! How can I—in a very direct setting of a piece—indicate her sorrow, her profound sorrow, of seeing her Son murdered? How can I do that? Couldn’t figure it out. Until one night, lying in bed, I said, “Oh yeah—got it: it’s going to be done with one note.”

His description of this breakthrough thrills me yet. But when I looked for the element that had moved me to tears, I discovered that it wasn’t the discordant note itself.

It was the portion that comes after it.

Watch the expression on Lauridsen’s face, if you will, at about 6:53 and especially 7:07. “Now it builds up to the alleluia—Alleluia!

Whatever his own stance may be in regard to Christ, he has touched upon something here, and he knows it. This is the only time the word “beatific” has come to mind while watching an artist describe his work. This musical portion is the feature that makes this interview worth watching and the song worth playing for me, though it has taken months of being speechlessly moved before finally sinking in.

For “O Magnum Mysterium” does indeed build up to its alleluia. The chords, the melody, and the range of voices broaden into an open and exhilarating space. James Arthur Bond expresses it far more eloquently:

The final section embodies this twofold sense of intellectual wonder and irrepressible jubilation. . . . [It] draws together all preceding musical elements of the first two sections, suffusing the repetition of the first line of text with both a joyful realization and an abiding conviction of wholeness. (“Thunderstruck by Art,” 17)

Bond also quotes the poet Dana Gioia, who “asserts that Lauridsen’s best music . . . is an experience that leaves the listener ‘breathless’ with the discernment ‘of beauty’ far beyond everyday life” (19). An abiding conviction of wholeness. Beauty far beyond everyday life. I’m gratified to know that I am not alone in the intensity of my reaction, and more grateful still to see others express the finer details of a Joy that I—from experience—am usually wary of dissecting.

And I let the knot in my throat remain tonight, as I listen once more.

Beata Virgo. The first dissonant note is sung, like the jarring funereal gift of frankincense presented to the infant King. I release a breath of fragility that I did not know I was holding.

Again, the G sharp: the acknowledgment of the suffering that is to come to the Son of God—the suffering for which He came. It resounds, this time, with the truth that He is now and forever able to sympathize with us our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). He knows our brokenness and our pain. He entered willingly into it, and in the words of Sally Lloyd-Jones, has whispered to us, “It will not always be so.

Then—the release of the alleluia. Ah, friends.

At the end of the age the Church shall have a thousand variations upon this single word to bring to her Bridegroom, and I don't think I will wonder then to see tears standing in the eyes of the saints.

Amy Baik Lee

It is earned; it is won; it is paced correctly; it is like passing through a narrow tunnel and coming upon the sudden and breathtaking expansion of the view ahead. I hear the soaring descant and the sure, firm confidence of the bass line carrying the listener forward like the surety of time tumbling toward the remaking of the world. It is sheer joy; it is the sound of creation made well and reveling in its freedom from the fathoms-deep trenches of sin, finally awestruck by the intricacy of its long rescue. It is the chorus of a future glory in which every promise is fulfilled, accomplished by the One whose word ever holds true and whose beauty will never cease to fill the great hunger and thirst of our souls. 

And at the close of this Christmastide, it is as a cup of cold water that sparkles with the air of a distant, beloved country.

So when I hear the word again, in much quieter form, in Sara Groves’ “Let Our Gladness Have No End,” it is no less powerful for its softness. At the end of the age the Church shall have a thousand variations upon this single word to bring to her Bridegroom, and I don’t think I will wonder then to see tears standing in the eyes of the saints. I may wonder that I can see at all through my own. 

Until then, through the countless songs of this season, it rings still with the wonder and the upside-down splendor and the promise of our salvation arriving in a Bethlehem trough. Overseen by animals, birthed by a virgin: “For [thus] to earth did Christ descend— 

Alleluia.”

This beautiful post first appeared on Amy Baik Lee’s own blog, Sun-Steeped Days. Check it out for more of her heartfelt writing.


2 Comments

  1. Caleb Fetterhoff

    @caleb-fetterhoff

    O Magnum Mysterium in Lauridsen’s setting has been in my Christmas playlist, and when it plays, I am always forced to pause and allow its beauty to mesmerize, at least for a moment. But I had never analyzed it musically, nor had I even really read the English translation of the words in a thoughtful way. It’s amazing how the two dissonant notes always manage to pierce through to the heart, even in the midst of background distractions and busyness, to suggest something weighty is occurring in the meaning of the piece beyond what merely meets the ear, but now you and Lauridsen have made it so clear. Thank you, Ms. Lee, for your poignant illumination of how the piece really manages to be so arresting and yet so simple; thank you for sharing with us how it has helped you to worship this Christmas season with a constant pointer toward the alleluias yet to come at the “chorus of a future glory.” Your twin analysis of both the art itself and your own heart in response to it has been the perfect meditation for this Epiphany.
    I do have a question: Why do you think Lauridsen found it necessary to introduce the idea of grief over Jesus’ death into the work? The text itself does not require it, since it doesn’t mention the passion of Christ at all. In the video from USC, he seems to suggest that the pain of bereavement is integral to the meaning of the words “Blessed Virgin,” and I wonder if anyone has any thoughts about why that is. Certainly, it makes the piece much more substantive and rewarding to listen to. As Ms. Lee points out, it makes the Alleluias “well earned. But why was the composer brought to its inclusion in the first place?

  2. Amy Baik Lee

    @sunsteepeddays

    @caleb-fetterhoff Thank you, Caleb, for this kind and thoughtful response!

    For my part, I think a meditation on the words “Blessed Virgin” and the significance of Mary’s life might easily invite the foreshadowing of her grief, since the reality of it is there in the gospel accounts from the beginning (“and a sword will pierce through your own soul also”).

    But for Lauridsen (see p. 16-17 of the “Thunderstruck by Art” piece, linked above), Francisco de Zurbaran’s “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose” appears to have had a direct effect as well — he was so moved by the painting that he wanted to weep. This was the experience he wanted to relay musically, and to do so he caught the “contrast between the [slightly withered rose, signifying Mary] and the other objects in the painting” through his dissonant note and its contemplation upon her suffering. Salvation was to come at a price — indeed the highest of all prices — to which Mary would have a front-row seat, so that even her blessedness in being favored and chosen by God was not the untroubled and happy thing we might otherwise imagine it to be. “Blessed Virgin,” therefore, is a phrase that must communicate all of the above if it is to be truthful: the favor, the sorrow, the goodness of God that sees beyond the simple human grasp of “good” and blesses through suffering in order that unimaginably greater joys may be secured on our behalf.

    These are only my own thoughts, not those of Lauridsen or anyone with musical or artistic expertise. What are yours?

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