O Magnum Mysterium
By Morten Lauridsen
Hyperion Records Ltd. London, England
Response by John Picone
“It’s not often I have to brush away the tears when I’m reviewing a recording…” (Fanfare, USA)
Such was my response when I first listened to this recording. It is, for me, the most beautiful and moving six and a half minutes of music I have ever heard.
And I simply wonder why.
Although I want to resist any kind of analysis of what it is about this music that is so emotive, it is clear that Lauridsen has composed a piece with a broad dynamic range and a melody that, likewise, spans a broad register. Fluctuations in tempo are subtle. Although the overall effect is one of profound serenity and tenderness, the interplay between the voices gives the piece both intensity and excitement. There is indeed, as Bryon Adams writes in the liner notes, a “mystical awe.”
Serenity. Intensity. Tenderness. Excitement. Mystical awe.
Are these in the music? They are certainly in me. But, having shared this recording with others, adults as well as some of my music students, it clearly does not evoke the same emotions in everyone.
I find my response to this music not only deeply wonderful, but also puzzling. I am not a fan of choral music. Other than some Christmas CDs, this is the first choral recording to find its way into my music collection. I did not place it near the opera CDs; there are none. Yet, I love to sing and do so every week at church. Perhaps it is this that affects my response, “O Magnum Mysterium” being a song that is essentially spiritual. The songs I love to sing most, accompanying myself on the piano, are spiritual in nature.
The song, of course, is sung in Latin. It was only after looking at the liner notes that I became aware that it refers to the Incarnation of Christ. The poetry itself made no difference: a simple description of the Nativity scene. Perhaps it’s listening to this music at this Christmas time of the year that makes it more special. I know that sometimes one’s emotional response to a piece of music is prompted by the recollection of a memory cued by the song. This did not happen here.
I have, since purchasing this CD, listened to several recordings of concert band arrangements of “O Magnum Mysterium” on the internet. My immediate response was to secure the score and program it for the spring concert at my school. My students love to play Frank Ticheli’s “An American Elegy,” so I thought it reasonable they would enjoy Lauridsen’s composition. Or, perhaps, my own emotional drive is unfairly into overdrive. I wonder if, for my young musicians, such music simply “sounds good,” or whether, indeed, they have an emotional response to it.
All of my experience this term exploring music and the brain has been no less than fascinating! Still, it has been somewhat clinical in nature, scientific. Even chapters dealing with emotion and music in Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music and Gruhn and Rausher’s Neurosciences in Music Pedagogy are so characterized. Perhaps this is the only way to examine this topic: clinically, scientifically.
Still, it was refreshing to read in the conclusion of Kreutz and Lotze’s chapter, “Neuroscience of Music and Emotion,” quoting from Panksepp and Bernatzky, 2002, “there is an even deeper mystery within brain organization to which all these cognitive issues are subservient” (Neurosciences in Music Pedagogy, 2008, p. 161).
I have come to deeply appreciate the value of exploring, through research, the neurological impact of music, and the many possibilities for pedagogy and therapy. Yet, as much as I want to find a way to help my autistic niece, through some as yet undiscovered way, to learn to read in a way that is facilitated by music, I kind of hope that our emotional response to music remains a mystery.
If there’s every a course on “Music and the Heart,” I won’t take it.