Sacred Music Sunday: O Magnum Mysterium

Francisco de Zurbarán
Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose

When it comes to music that is both Sacred and Christmas, O Magnum Mysterium by Dr. Morten Lauridsen succeeds beautifully on both counts.

This work was inspired by the painting above, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, humble objects with deeply symbolic spiritual meaning: the three distinct areas of the painting alluding to the Holy Trinity, with the oranges, water, and blossoms to symbolize the purity of and to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. The thornless rose represents her immaculate conception.

Lauridsen selected a text in Latin as follows:

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

Here it is in English:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

The work is performed by choir unaccompanied. It is written in the key of D major (2 sharps) and remains completely within the notes of the diatonic scale (no extra sharps, flats or naturals), with one notable exception: the altos in ms. 39 sing a G# on the word “Virgin” — according to Lauridsen, to “shine a spotlight” on that word. Though it stays entirely diatonic throughout, the basses evade a perfect authentic cadence (lowest voices singing “D”) until ms. 45, on the word “Alleluia.”  That’s a very rich spot in the piece, blooming open into 8-9 parts for the first time!  These features add to the quiet mystery of absence of what we “expect” to hear.

From Lauridsen’s score, “For centuries, composers have been inspired by the beautiful O Magnum Mysterium text depicting the birth of the new-born King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. This affirmation of God’s grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy.” 

For other lovely songs for your Christmas listening, check out our Merry Christmas playlist recommendations!



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