For most of our 38 seasons, I have avoided repeating a piece, as we choral singers are blessed with a vast repertoire of fascinating, worthwhile compositions from which to choose; life is short, why repeat a work we have already “done?” Short answer: because it is such a rewarding work that it deserves revisiting; it changes and deepens when you return to it at a different stage in your life; for some of our newer singers, the “revisit” may be their first exposure to the work. What a treat for them, in this case!
Since we first experienced Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna in 2003, many singers have expressed a desire to sing it again. While the music sounds simple and soothing to the listener, it is full of challenges for the singers, yet is such a beautifully crafted and emotionally satisfying work, that no one minds engaging in – and growing from — its technical demands.
The work is often compared, in subject, tone, treatment and even compositional motivation, to both Fauré’s Requiem and Brahms’ A German Requiem. In each case the composer’s mother’s death added poignancy to the subject. Each of these works expresses warmth and consolation. In Lauridsen’s words, Lux Aeterna is an “intimate work of quiet serenity” that expresses “hope, reassurance, faith and illumination in all of its manifestations.”
Scored for chamber orchestra and lacking vocal soloists, Lauriden’s focus is on the collective human experience, as expressed by the chorus. As is fitting for a piece that explores the eternal, the timeless, his compositional techniques look both back and forward. Frequent use of imitative, contrapuntal and even strictly canonic passage recall Renaissance motets; long, vocal lines suggest medieval chant. The harmonic language, with its frequent use of dissonance and “cluster” effects, works seamlessly to create music that is rooted in the old, but looks forward to the new, thereby suggesting the eternal. As in chant, the entire work is text-centered, where the melodic lines always fit the natural stress of the words. “My passion second to music is poetry….Consequently, it has been a natural development for me as a composer to wed these two passions and to set texts to music….I constantly sing each line as I am composing to make sure each vocal part is lyrical and gracious for the singer.” The choral passages move freely from homophonic to contrapuntal textures, determined by the text.
The work consists of five movements, each a setting of a sacred Latin text containing references to light. In bookend fashion, the first and last movements draw upon words from the beginning and ending of the Missa pro defunctis, concluding with the universal prayer for peace. Each of the five movements, performed without separation, reflects a different musical response to the text. The first movement, “Introitus,” introduces many of the themes that will be used throughout. The music ebbs and flows, following the natural tensions and stresses of the text.
The stark second movement, “In te, Domine Speravi,” opens with a 1677 hymn tune, “Herlibster Jesu” employed like a cantus firmus in the orchestra. The choral parts are often in pairs (sopranos/altos; tenors/basses) while creating a strict mirror canon in the middle of the movement. Here the formal compositional technique can be seen as representing both self-reflection and a dialogue between Man and Creator.
The central movement, “O Nata Lux” (O Light born from Light), is unaccompanied, pure vocal sound. This lovely and moving piece is frequently performed apart from the rest of the work; it stands like the gem in the middle of a beautiful setting.
The exuberant “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” builds and soars before dimming gradually into the gentle Agnus Dei. Much of the music from the first movement is heard again, culminating with a powerful overflow of “alleluias.” The work concludes with the traditional prayer for peace.
Perhaps singers so love this work because of its ability to communicate clearly what Wordsworth once identified as “thoughts too deep for tears.”
–Barbara Jones, March 2017