Illumining Through Sound: Morten Lauridsen and the Los Angeles Master Chorale
By Thomas May
Well before he took up his composer residency with the Master Chorale in 1995, Morten Lauridsen’s artistic odyssey had already begun to intersect with the ensemble’s own unfolding history. He was only a year into college when he experienced an epiphany that made him realize his calling was a life dedicated to music. Spending the summer as a firefighter for the Forest Service in his native state of Washington, the young man was posted to an isolated tower in the wilds of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, south of Mount St. Helens. Lauridsen found himself completely on his own for a ten-week stretch. But his perspective from that lonely lookout tower revealed “beauty beyond description – to be above the clouds with these magnificent snowy peaks,” as Lauridsen puts it in Shining Night, the award-winning recent documentary portrait filmed by Michael Stillwater.
The emotional intensity of his reaction led Lauridsen to acknowledge how indispensable music had already become to his existence – and how deeply he missed it. So began the sequence of decisions that would eventually shape him into one of the best-loved and most frequently performed composers of choral music on the planet today.
With all the eagerness of young love, Lauridsen pulled out all the stops, devising a program of complete musical immersion. The following year he transferred to the University of Southern California, where he found a mentor in Halsey Stevens (1908-1989), a composer and Bartók specialist. Stevens provisionally gave the new student one semester to prove himself in his composition class. Lauridsen – who had come knocking without a single composition to his portfolio – won Stevens’ support and within two years had composed his first published works, a choral setting of Psalm 150 and a sonata for trumpet and piano.
By happy coincidence, Lauridsen’s first years in California overlapped with the inaugural seasons of the Master Chorale, then just settling into its home in the recently opened Music Center. “As a student I used to listen regularly to the Master Chorale from the cheap seats high up,” he recalls, adding that it was a very “opportune time” to be starting out in Los Angeles. The past half century being celebrated by the Master Chorale is coextensive with his entire composing career.
The cycle Mid-Winter Songs became the very first work to introduce Lauridsen’s music to the Chorale. In 1972 Lauridsen joined the faculty of the USC School of Music (where he continues to teach), and in 1980 USC commissioned a work from him to celebrate its centenary. Mid-Winter Songs received its premiere by the USC Chamber Singers; among its ranks at the time was a young Grant Gershon. Lauridsen originally wrote the cycle as a piece “not accompanied by piano but for choir and piano,” he explains. In other words, since he knew he had the fine pianist Mack Wilberg available to perform, he decided to write a highly challenging, sophisticated piano part, replete with extended solos. (Wilberg would go on to become the present music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.)
Robert Duerr of the Pasadena Chamber Symphony then commissioned a version for orchestra and chorus. Attending the latter’s premiere in 1983 were several members of the Master Chorale Board. Impressed by the musical quality, they brought it to Roger Wagner’s attention, who in 1985 introduced a Lauridsen composition to the ensemble’s repertoire for the first time. John Currie also programmed Mid-Winter Songs, so the Master Chorale’s close relationship to Lauridsen’s music has continued without interruption under all four of its music directors.
The first of eight large-scale, multi-movement cycles in his catalogue, Mid-Winter Songs exemplifies several prominent characteristics that have become Lauridsen signatures. First, we find here the profound role poetry plays as inspiration. Lauridsen emphasizes that his normal routine is organized around poetry, which he reads every day; he even reads poems aloud to begin each class with his students at the USC Thornton School of Music. The composer also points out that the poems he has chosen to set determine the specific musical character of a composition and that he develops his musical materials in response to a thorough grappling with all aspects of the text.
Related to this love of poetry was the painstaking search for a unifying poetic idea or thread to unify his selection of the poems for Mid-Winter Songs. When he began the commission, Lauridsen found himself fascinated by the poetry and life of the prolific Robert Graves (1895-1985) and culled five poems incorporating imagery of winter. He was especially attracted to what he terms “the paradoxical symbolism of “dying/rejuvenation, light/darkness, sleeping/waking” that winter elicited from Graves and chose poems encoding the poet’s biographical journey of romantic rejection by his lover Laura Riding and subsequent marriage to his second wife, Beryl Hodge. The five poems reflect Graves’ lucid, almost classical lyricism. He uses the transformations recounted in myth along with those of nature as correlatives for his inner state.
In stark contrast to later works such as Lux Aeterna, the opening music of Mid-Winter Songs resounds with an angst corresponding to the emotional pain of rejection. The sparkling second song turns the rejecting lover into ice. As the cycle’s introspective center, the third song brings warmth with the discovery of new love, while the playful fourth song depicts what Lauridsen calls “a giddy stirring from hibernation, both from love and creativity.” The fifth song becomes the poet’s prayer “to spare his heart from being broken again” – yet the return of the passionate, angst-filled music from the opening suggests that his heartbreak will always be remembered and is possible again. Still another signature is the composer’s deft use of an arch form design: the second and fourth songs are mirrors, as are the first and last.
During his period as composer in residence under Paul Salamunovich, Lauridsen became deeply influenced both by “the special sound Paul was able to get from the Chorale” and by the conductor’s expertise in medieval chant and Renaissance music. Music Director Grant Gershon, he remarks, once referred to this convergence as “the most ideal combination he’s ever seen of a composer, a conductor, and an ensemble working together.” Lauridsen had written a setting of the familiar Ave Maria for the full Chorale as a 70th-birthday present for Paul Salamunovich, and in 2004, on a commission from the all-male Harvard Glee Club, he turned to Ave Dulcissima Maria, an alternate invocation to the Virgin that – surprisingly, in view of its beauty – has received far less attention from composers through the ages. (The “avant-garde” Renaissance composer Gesualdo made one famous setting of this text.) In this setting for a cappella male voices with incidental solos, with brief accompanimental gestures from finger cymbals, Lauridsen channels the technique and the spirituality of medieval chant but also brings it into the present.
The setting of the canticle O Vos Omnes for women’s voices makes an intriguing complementary pairing. Initially Lauridsen wrote a farewell piece for his mentor Halsey Stevens in the form of two brief solos for clarinet, an instrument for which Stevens had a particular fondness. In 2007 Lauridsen then set the elegiac Latin words of the canticle to a unison line for women’s voices and chime in remembrance of his late brother, Neal Arthur Lauridsen.
Lauridsen decided to arrange all of this music as a triptych, the choral music framed by a long melodic meditation by the clarinet and then a series of four compressed variations, each introduced by a special playing technique called multiphonics – the sounding of two or more pitches simultaneously – through which the clarinetist imitates the sound of tolling bells. The composer refers to the clarinet solos as an “abstract blues.” The result is a haunting example of the range of his musical expression: here, through entirely atonal means in both the instrumental and choral parts, he evokes a sense of the timeless serenity so familiar from other pieces, but tinged with an indescribable melancholy.
In the three-part Nocturnes from 2005, we encounter Lauridsen’s insistence on setting poetry in the original language in which it was conceived. Three twentieth-century poets of different nationalities provide the texts for a cycle unified by the thematic image of night as a zone of heightened romantic and spiritual awareness. Lauridsen is especially receptive to the genius of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the cosmopolitan, early-modern poet who was born in Prague and wrote in German and French. He sets one of Rilke’s French poems using chords tinged with jazz to evoke what he describes as “the mystery of a summer night in Paris in the 1920s.” Lauridsen regards Pablo Neruda’s (1904-1973) “Soneto de la Noche” as “among the most beautiful love poems ever written” and sets the text for a cappella chorus, intending to suggest the character of a Chilean folk song. “Sure on This Shining Night” by the American author James Agee (1909-1955) prompted Lauridsen to express his abiding esteem for the composers of the Broadway stage. “One of the things I love most about the great American Broadway songwriters,” he observes, “is that they knew what to do with a long, elegant line,” adding that this influence can be found in the melodic contours of his Agee setting. A few years later, Lauridsen returned to Nocturnes to add an epilogue, which was given its world premiere by Gershon and the Master Chorale. This is a setting of Rilke’s brief French poem “Voici le soir,” which recalls the bell sounds from the opening by Rilke and ends with night’s mysterious onset.
The Madrigali from 1987 represent his most technically challenging work and require an astonishing virtuosity from the performers. These are also the most virtuosic pieces compositionally, in the sense that Lauridsen looks for his model to the great madrigals of Monteverdi and Gesualdo, which are prized not only for their uncannily suggestive word painting but their subtle harmonic transformations and contrapuntal intricacy. In this case confining himself to one language, Lauridsen nevertheless roamed widely through the fertile ground of Italian Renaissance poetry to find six texts, all linked by the symbolism of fire and burning as images for romantic desire and unrequited love.
At a far extreme from the serene peace of O Magnum Mysterium or the Lux Aeterna, the six Madrigali all revolve around a musical image that is the epitome of tormented and tormenting passion: a motivic chord of B-flat minor with an added C heard at the outset, which the composer terms his “fire chord” and which he continually manipulates throughout the cycle to generate new material. Characteristically, the Madrigali are designed as an arch, with close links between the first and last and the second and fifth songs, and they pivot around a climactic center – the explosion of the “fire chord” in “Io Piango.” Lauridsen refers to the final song (“Se Per Havervi, Oime,” a poem set by Monteverdi himself) as a personal favorite. The return of the “fire chord” in its original version – on the word “you” in Italian – signifies “a recognition that this love will be lost and remain unrequited, so the piece ends unresolved.”
Lauridsen enjoys recounting the complicated genesis of Les Chansons des Roses. It began as a brief commission for the Portland-based ensemble Choral Cross-Ties that he only learned about second hand. When his mother congratulated him on the upcoming premiere of a new piece – publicized in the group’s season announcement – Lauridsen was baffled, as he had not even received (let alone accepted) a commission from Choral Cross-Ties. Just what was he expected to write? The composer’s longstanding habit of prowling bookstores on the lookout for potential poetic sources had recently yielded a new publication by Graywolf Press of the complete French poems by Rilke. Free associating with Portland – where he had grown up and attended high school – as the “City of Roses,” Lauridsen decided to set “Dirait-on” in the style of a French chanson populaire or folk song (with guitar-like piano accompaniment) as if the music had always been there. He completed his charming piano-choral score and sent it off as a stand-alone song that could be used as an encore piece.
But soon Lauridsen discovered he was irresistibly captivated by the exquisite fragrance of Rilke’s rose poems. He kept coming back, adding one after another until he had crafted a complete cycle, all unified by thematic material generated from what was now the concluding song. The composer writes that he designed his music to complement Rilke’s blend of “primarily light, joyous, and playful” characteristics and to “capture the delicate beauty and sensuousness” of the French poems, with “Contre Qui, Rose,” set as “a wistful nocturne,” mirrored by the music of “La Rose Complète” in still another overall arch form for the cycle.
“After years of quietly setting wonderful texts to music, everything exploded in the early 1990s when I turned 50 and then became composer in residence of the Master Chorale under Paul,” observes Lauridsen. Indeed his breakthrough to international fame was triggered by the unanticipated response to his first commission for the Master Chorale. O Magnum Mysterium (1994) would go on to become the highest-selling item in the catalogue of Theodore Presser (distributor for Lauridsen’s publisher, Peermusic) ever since the company had been founded in 1783. Commissioned by Marshall Rutter (one of the Master Chorale’s co-founders) for Terry Knowles, his wife and the ensemble’s current president, O Magnum Mysterium is as much a Master Chorale signature as it is emblematic of Lauridsen’s most mystically serene vein. The Latin text – profoundly simple, just two sentences ending with an exclamation but expressing the unfathomable paradox of the divine revealed amid the humbly human – elicits a seamless skein of radiant melody. Lauridsen points to the harmonic secret of a single focal G-sharp – the only note outside the home tonal field – for the altos on the word “virgo” (set against a minor triad), as his solution to the challenge of how to imply Mary’s future suffering within the luminous flow of the music.
Along with the Renaissance musical models to which Paul Salamunovich had attuned Lauridsen, he was struck by a serendipitous viewing in the Norton Simon Museum of Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose by the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán. At the request of the Wall Street Journal, Lauridsen wrote an article exploring the relationship of that painting to his approach in setting O Magnum Mysterium with the goal of creating an impactful work projecting an aura of mystery and deep religiosity through very direct musical means. The painter made him realize that he shared a similar goal: to write a piece “to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.”
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
A Composer’s Retreat
Michael Stillwater’s Shining Night – incredibly, the filmmaker’s debut feature-length documentary – is a must-see for anyone interested in the world of Morten Lauridsen. Some of this film portrait’s most unforgettable sequences show the composer in his working studio on Waldron Island, one of the San Juan Islands located in the Salish Sea in the state of Washington.
Lauridsen’s Danish ancestors settled in the Pacific Northwest generations ago, and he spent time as a youngster visiting with relatives on Waldron Island, which once was home to sandstone workers and other miners and their families. But since the 1940s the island lost most of its population and is now a remote get-away – there isn’t even any regular ferry service. In the 1970s Lauridsen purchased the decrepit former general store (known to locals as “Crum’s Castle” on account of its crenelated roofline) and moved in with some hand tools, a golden retriever and a $50 Steinway piano of highly variable tuning – the instrument on which he completed such masterpieces as O Magnum Mysterium and Lux Aeterna, writing the old-fashioned way: with pencil and score paper.
Mahler had his “composer’s hut” in the Austrian Alps, and Lauridsen has his “rustic sanctuary” where he loves to spend summers meditating on his pieces. Composing, he remarks, always takes an immense amount of time, including laying the groundwork but making this sort of internal (and literal) retreat from the hectic buzz of the modern world.
On Waldron Island, says Lauridsen, “my love of the sea and my need for a place of quietness and contemplation” all come together. “For me it’s necessary to get into a place that’s conducive to that kind of thinking. Much of the serenity and calmness people feel in my music has come from my feelings of being in such a peaceful and beautiful spot.”
Lauridsen Recordings to Have
There are over 200 CDs that include performances of Lauridsen’s music. Here’s a list of four recordings that are especially recommended:
— the Master Chorale’s Grammy®-nominated all-Lauridsen Lux Aeterna (RCM) under Paul Salamunovich – a recording that also enhanced the ensemble’s international reputation. This includes the orchestral (second) version of Mid-Winter Songs
— the Polyphony Choir’s Lux Aeterna (Hyperion) with Stephen Layton, also Grammy® nominated
— Northwest Journey (RCM), a widely-ranging all-Lauridsen compilation that includes such rarities as the early Where Have the Actors Gone, Dirait-on in a duet version, and the piano/vocal version of O Magnum Mysterium. There’s also the complete Lorca cycle Cuatro Canciones, which shows a less-familiar side of Lauridsen with its edgy, atonal music
— Sure on This Shining Night (Voce) with the Hartford-based Voce and Voce Chamber Artists, which contains the only recording to date of O Vos Omnes
Awards and Recognition
Recipient, 2007 National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in a White House ceremony
Named Honorary Artistic President of INTERKULTUR and the World Choir Games in 2013
NEA-designated “American Choral Master,” four honorary doctorates
More than 100 residencies at universities in America and Europe and over 500 commission requests