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Old and New Music Friday: O Magnum Mysterium and Danse Macabre

I’ve talked a lot about the Old Music I love – the English choral evensong tradition, and Renaissance polyphony from the Flemish composers like Gombert, and even the Grandaddy of them all, Palestrina.  But what many casual choral enthusiasts don’t realize is that there is a huge upsurge in amazing choral music being composed now (perhaps even go as far as to call it a Renaissance?).


Morten Lauridsen

Much of this is being led by the music department at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music and the National Medal of Arts winner, composer Morten Lauridsen.  If you have never heard his O Magnum Mysterium, stop everything you are doing, grab a good pair of headphones, and listen to this amazing recording of King’s College Choir performing it at a Christmas mass.  Seriously, it’s only like 6 minutes.  You can spare 6 minutes for this spiritual experience.  I promise you.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7ch7uottHU]

I told you it was worth it, didn’t I?  So, with that being said, I want to talk both about the O Magnum Mysterium, which is such a mystical text, part of the Christmas Matins service.  The canonical day is broken up into times not by hours the way we do now (monks didn’t have clocks in the middle ages) but rather they would divide time by fixed prayers said at different times of the day.  Often when reading about social history, you will hear of someone having a “book of hours” and this refers to a book of the prayers that were said at each time of the day.

The canonical hours could be a blog unto themselves with the amount of time they’ve been worked and reworked through history (schisms, splits, the Reformation, yada yada), but for our purposes here, I want to talk about Matins.  Matins is the morning prayer.  In the Catholic tradition it would have been the pre-dawn prayer, the final of the overnight ones before starting the day.  Many Anglican and Lutheran churches have early morning services that they call Matins.

So with that being said, imagine starting your Christmas day five hundred years ago in the predawn with the O Magnum Mysterium.  The church is cold because there isn’t any heat.  It’s the darkest time of the year.  The few candles that are lit are casting weird shadows.  Maybe there is a coating of snow by the door as people scrape off their shoes.  The rushes on the rest of the floor probably smell.  People shuffle in, tired and cranky.  And then in the darkness, somewhere in the front, someone starts singing this text:

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

I think, given that we all gripe about the commercialization of Christmas, which is going to start in full swing now that Halloween is here (more on that in a second) we could all use a bit more of the mystery of the holiday with us.  A bit more of remembering the sacred, the divine, and the mysterious unknowable.  My new tradition is going to be starting every Christmas morning by listening to this Lauridsen piece which captures the mystery with such perfection.  To me it expresses humanity’s great wish to understand God, to understand the cosmos, to understand What It’s All About; and the fact that, in this lifetime at least, we simply can’t.  So much of humanity seems to be about the juxtaposition of knowing that our lives are finite, and wondering what, if anything, comes next.

With Christmas, Christians have an answer to this Question of all Questions, though it is still shrouded in the great mystery that is faith.  So even the Alleluia’s are muted.  Alleluia for Christ has come, but He will suffer, He will die, and 2000 years later, after an entire Infrastructure around Faith has been built up, and Christianity has become one of the world’s major religions, and the Pope can excommunicate people as an intermediary between God and humanity, and the Crusades and the wars and the genocides that have occurred in His name, and everyone having an opinion of what Truth is, and every preacher having The Answer… after all of this, humans still left in the predawn hours wondering and grappling with the fact that we will most likely never really know.  That’s what this piece represents to me, and for me, the questioning is the most important part of my Faith.

But questioning aside, today is Halloween, and if you’re into doing fun musical things, I encourage you to dance with your kids (or yourself) to the Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, which is a 7 minute piece depicting the ancient belief that on All Hallow’s Eve the spirits can come out and party for just one night until they need to go back in their graves for another year.  When I was a kid, every year our music teacher in school would put this into rotation in the weeks leading up to Halloween, and we’d start out hiding under desks, under the piano, etc., and slowly “wake up” and come to life, dancing around with abandon as only spirits and elementary school kids can do until the sound of the rooster, at which point we’d all slowly dance our way back to our original hiding spots.  It’s a tradition I’ve started with Hannah this year, and though she’s only 15 months old and doesn’t understand any of it, she likes watching The Hubby and I dance around, and joining us, and laughing and twirling around.  Happy Halloween – may you have lots of treats and hardly any tricks.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM]