Monday 29th November 2021

Morten Lauridsen in conversation with Ben Parry

Our December recording release is the beautiful Christmas motet, O magnum mysterium by celebrated American composer, Morten Lauridsen.

NYCGB Artistic Director, Ben Parry, who conducted the recording of the piece with National Youth Choir in the summer of 2021, was lucky enough to catch up with Morten by phone from his island home in Washington State.

Morten, it’s such a privilege to talk to you - I know you only by your reputation, which is huge! I wanted to ask you about the writing of O magnum mysterium - did the music come easily to you?

I actually took a long time writing the piece - around six months in all - as I wanted to get it exactly right. I wrote much of the piece in the seclusion on Waldron Island off the coast of Seattle, Washington State - no mobile phones or internet to disturb me. The piece was commissioned by the wonderful American choir, the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1994 and the first performance was given by the choir under the direction of Paul Salamunovich. I drew my inspiration from a 17th century painting - Zurbarán's Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, which contains much symbolism of the Virgin Mary - and the simplicity of the original plainchant. My principal aim was to re-create a profound reaction musically, an illumination through sound, which moves the listener to the core. When I’d finally finished the composition, I posted off a manuscript to Paul the conductor, a little boat picking up the mail from the island just once or twice a week. The première performance was intensely moving and profound - the conductor announced at that performance that my piece would become a defining piece of sacred choral music in the 20th century. After the performance I sat alone in my car thinking “what just happened?”.

I know there are countless recordings and performances of the piece. Do you get to listen to most of them?

I feel every note of any performance I hear - many are wonderful (like yours!) and others I decide to switch off! Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised - there was a performance by a choir from a small university in Iowa which moved me to tears. And the piece has a life outside the conventional choral domain. In 2009 I was contacted by Hollywood film composer Hans Zimmer, who wanted to use the piece in his score for the Ron Howard film Angels and Demons - he loved my piece, and rather than trying to copy the style of my music, he thought it was better to use my actual piece in the soundtrack! There are, of course, so many wonderful pieces of Christmas choral repertoire - and I am proud to have added to this great canon.

What do you think of our recording of your piece?

The NYC performance is really beautiful! I wasn’t sure how a youth choir would be able to sustain the piece - particularly those low D’s in the basses - but your efforts have surpassed all my expectations! Getting a good performance of this piece is not easy for choirs. The tuning, sonorities, dynamics, range, phrasing and rubatos are all very specifically written, and need to be rehearsed and performed with great style and sensitivity. You’ve done such a great job with this recording.

Are you still active with composition?

I was professor of composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music for 52 years! I’m now retired to San Juan Island but am still writing. In fact, I’m shortly to attend the world première of a piece for choir and strings which I’ve written for a new music centre here in the US - but it’s still under wraps, so I can’t tell you where that is!

Perhaps we can get you to write a new piece for National Youth Choir in the next few years?

Let’s keep in touch about that!

Want to listen?

National Youth Choir's performance of O magnum mysterium is available NOW on Spotify, Apple Music and other major platforms.