O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
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.
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.
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. Breathtaking 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.
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 third day of Christmas, 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 —