Shadowproof

Saturday Sonorities: O Magnum Mysterium

I was going to expropriate the heading Saturday Chorale, but I see that markfromireland is hardly done with it himself. In any event, I’d like to link the the Lake to three extremely diverse choral settings of the Christmas responsorial chant O magnum mysterium. They’re standards of choral repertoires worldwide, for good reason. (Not much to view by way of video–I went for the best sound I could find.) The text:

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 new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

First up, and best known, the motet by the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, published in 1572. Performed by the Cambridge Singers (and preceded by a brief commercial message).

Flash forward to the Robert Shaw Festival Singers performing a setting by the 20th century French composer Franics Poulenc, from his four Christmas motets. A committed Catholic, yet openly gay, Poulenc blended straightforward tonality with sometimes jarring chromatic twists, as if to mirror his personal contrasts. The Christmas motets were composed in 1952, at a time when Poulenc’s output increasingly leaned toward sacred works.

Finally, a contemporary masterwork–the 1994 setting by American composer Morten Lauridsen. Its lush, sustained dissonances require lungs of steel and a complete subordination of ego and vibrato to the ensemble sound (more so, even, than for the Victoria).  When performed as flawlessly as here, by the Nordic Chamber Choir, the sensuality of its dynamic and structural arc pierces the heart. (The rendition by the Westminster Cathedral Choir is hardly shabby either, if you don’t mind the distracting footage of priests filling the air with chorister-choking incense.)

I hope you find these as spiritually transporting as I do…and from a stone-cold atheist, that’s a rave.
(Crossing my fingers and hoping my first attempt at video-embedding works.)

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