A piano melody drifts upon the morning breeze. Seagulls and eagles cry their airy counterpart while waves gently lap upon the shore.
The music emanates from a rambling, hand-crafted shack perched on a remote forested islet in the San Juan Archipelago, the northwestern-most islands of the continental United States and only a short kayak passage from Canada. Re-fashioned from the skeleton of an old general store, the eccentric abode boasts no running water or electricity and uses only candles for light- but serves as a creative sanctuary for Morten Lauridsen, regarded as one of the world’s great living composers.
When asked about his initial move into the old house, he replied: “I moved in with a fifty-dollar piano and a golden retriever, some hand tools and a sleeping bag- and on that very piano I finished O Magnum Mysterium.”
O Magnum Mysterium, a choral work based on two lines of scriptural text, has been set to music by composers for centuries. Yet Lauridsen’s rendition, sung by choirs everywhere, touches the sublime in a way which inspires audiences worldwide.
His Lux Aeterna, a five-movement Requiem, is embraced by choirs and listeners everywhere as a kind of musical doorway into paradise. Together with his Nocturnes, several compositions with text from poets James Agee, Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke, these works are considered among Lauridsen’s finest musical achievements.
Named an 'American Choral Master' in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts, he received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 "for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide."
Speaking of Morten Lauridsen and his music, Dana Gioia- poet laureate of California and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts – says: “He is one of the few living composers who I would call great. His music has a kind of authority, as well as a beauty. He seems to recapitulate the entire history of Western choral music in his compositions, which still seem fresh and contemporary. He’s one of the few composers who I have conviction will be performed hundreds of years from now.”
In filming a documentary about his life and music together with my wife, Doris Laesser Stillwater- Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen (2012), recipient of four Best Documentary awards and hailed as “a heartening rarity” (Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal), we were continually impressed by his presence, recognized not only through his music, but through the way he spoke and lived. His relationship to the island and the residents upon it, and to the activities of living a simple life, offer a constant reminder of the genuine humanity he embodies.
Referring to Lauridsen's sacred music, the musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple said he was "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, whose probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered. From 1993 Lauridsen's music rapidly increased in international popularity, and by century's end he had eclipsed Randall Thompson as the most frequently performed American choral composer." 1
Such a life has not been spared from sorrow, which became a catalyst for further inspiration. Regarding one of his most beloved compositions, he says: “I composed the Lux Aeterna, a work based on texts about eternal light, when I got the news that my mother was dying. As so many people- in arts especially- we turn to art in some shape or form, to comfort us and give us strength in these life-changing situations. I simply tried to write something very, very beautiful - a meditation, a quiet meditation about illumination. People are able to hear this music, and very often go into a transformative state that connects with something very deep within them.”
It is no wonder that Lauridsen’s music has been sung and praised by so many, with over 200 recordings of his compositions performed by choirs around the world. In a period where contemporary classical music is often bereft of recognizable melody, his pieces are known for exquisite arcs of melodic beauty. If you are just now discovering Lauridsen’s music, consider Lux Aeterna by Polyphony, Mid-Winter Songs by The Singers (including both Nocturnes and Les Chanson des Roses cycle, based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry), or Madrigali Fire-Songs by Con Anima. A set of four CDs especially selected by the composer is also available.
In the words of Dana Gioia:
There is a special mode of artistic expression which we have seen since the ancients, which we call sublime- which is to create human perception of beauty, of form, of existence at the highest, most dizzying possible levels of expression. There is a kind of transcendence that we find in the sublime, be it in Homer or Beethoven, and in Lauridsen’s greatest music- I think of something like Nocturnes, Lux Aeterna, or O Magnum Mysterium- we have the sense of operating at the highest levels of creativity, at the very limits of our senses, in a way which leaves us breathless with our perception of beauty.
As a new decade unfolds, seagulls and eagles continue to soar above the rocky island shoreline, the sound of a piano arises from the silence of a Pacific Northwest night, and the timeless nature of Lauridsen’s music continues to uplift and enchant wherever it is heard.
1 N. Strimple, Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, (Amadeus, 2005).