Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”) has become one of the most popular pieces of classical music in the world. First composed in 1994, this a cappella choral work has been recorded over a hundred times. Within a few years of its premiere, the sheet music sold over a million copies.

What accounts for the huge appeal of this work? Contemporary classical music is rarely popular. Sacred choral music has little commercial appeal, especially when the words are in Latin. Nor is Lauridsen’s work an easy piece in a popular style. O Magnum Mysterium is an austere and richly composed setting of a medieval sacred text. Lauridsen’s international success seems in itself a great mystery.

There is little doubt that Lauridsen’s work is a masterpiece, but that explanation is insufficient. Music has many neglected masterpieces. The success of Lauridsen’s motet comes from something singular – it has the power to bring the listener into a mystical trance.

Both authors of this column experienced that phenomenon when they first encountered Lauridsen’s motet. The composer himself has received a constant stream of mail from both musicians and audience members, nearly all strangers, who say the same thing: O Magnum Mysterium left them spellbound.

Premiered by conductor Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale in December 1994, Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium is a setting of the Responsory from the Christmas Day Matins.

The lean, harmonious, lyrical melodies are layered gently with rippling cascades of sound, suggestive of flowing water or waves on a shoreline – serenity that softly presents the words from the Latin text.

Those words, translated into English, express the wonder and joy of the Incarnation and speak to believers throughout the year:

O great mystery,
And wondrous sacrament,
That animals should see the new-
born Lord, lying in their manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear the
Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

Lauridsen never realized what he had created until he heard his composition at the dress rehearsal. He sat motionless in his parked car after the session had concluded, utterly stunned by the beauty, which he recalled had been inspired by another work of art.

Early in his composing process, Lauridsen had visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, where he was “thunderstruck” by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán’s 1633 oil painting, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.

He returned to the museum frequently, using the painting as a “visual model” as he composed. He noticed the interplay of shadow, reflection, and light, which brought the ordinary objects on a table into stark relief – a plate of lemons, a basket of oranges with blossoms, and another plate holding a thornless pink rose and a cup of water.

Reading about Zurbarán’s work, Lauridsen realized that the simple objects referred to the Incarnation. Each object brought up associations with renewal, new life, or purity, and served as offerings to the Virgin Mary.

Determined to elicit a similar response from his listeners, Lauridsen chose simple primary chords for the words from the liturgy. He also set the piece to capitalize upon Paul Salamunovich’s expertise in Gregorian chant, which the conductor had perfected from his experience as choir director at St. Charles Borromeo church in North Hollywood, California. (Salamunovich served as music director in that parish for sixty years.)

When he worked on the second section of the piece, Lauridsen faced a challenge. He wanted to depict not only the all-important role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation, but also her sorrow from the Crucifixion.

The chief difficulty lay in how to maintain the overall contemplative atmosphere, while drawing reverent attention to the Virgin Mary. Lauridsen spent sleepless nights sifting through every possible solution, none of which satisfied him. Just as he was falling asleep one night, however, he suddenly knew exactly what to do.

When Lauridsen sat down at his piano the next morning, he gave the piece a new note, which was purposely out of the key in which the work had been composed.  This note – a G-sharp – which he deftly tucked away in a middle voice, the alto line – created a subtle dissonance on the first syllable of the Latin word “Virgo” (Virgin).

He thought of it as casting a “sonic spotlight” on the Virgin Mary’s compassionate, sorrowful response, which diverges from the overall feeling of “joy and elation.” He wrote the note into the score twice, so that listeners would be drawn inward to a meditation on the Virgin Mary.

That quiet, intimate quality led naturally to the third section of the work, which consists of a joyful return to the opening portion. The third section includes the word “Alleluia!” – expressed first in a soaring soprano line. And then for the conclusion, the word is expressed by all four voices, as they fade from it to silence, leaving the listener with a sense of the sublime.

When the audience for the Los Angeles premiere experienced this remarkable ending, they recognized immediately that something very special had just occurred. The audience rose to its feet and exploded with applause.

The above comes from a Sept. 1 posting on The Catholic Thing.