Introitus from Lux Aeterna (excerpt)
Composed by Morten Lauridsen
Performed by Polyphony & Britten Sinfonia
on Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna
Reviews for Grammy-nominated Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna
'Layton and company have here produced the finest I've heard among several excellent collections of Lauridsen's work. None are quite as exquisitely nuanced or sung with such glowing vocal sheen as this. Clear and shimmering sound, plus Hyperion's usual complete and user-friendly booklet, make it all the more attractive. No committed choral fan or singer will ever regret letting Lauridsen into his life'
(American Record Guide)
'Stephen Layton's feel for the inner line and structure melts the heart, as does the impeccable, unforced singing of Polyphony. Their music-making remains in heavenly realms throughout the virtuoso Madrigali: pure choral gold' (Classic FM Magazine)
'This Hyperion release is superb and the disc is a must. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have' (Classical Music Web)
'It's not often I have to brush away the tears when I'm reviewing a recording, but I will happily confess that on this occasion Lauridsen got me again and again. I can't give this disc a higher recommendation than that. Run out and buy it as soon as you can' (Fanfare Magazine, USA)
'a flawless, perfectly balanced performance from the British choral group Polyphony, directed by the gifted Stephen Layton, and ably assisted by the Britten Sinfonia. If you love choral music, if you appreciate compositions that lift you from the mundane, you should not miss Lux Aeterna' (St Louis-Post Dispatch)
'The music has freshness and an affecting emotional pull to it that explains its popularity with singers and audiences across the pond. Stephen Layton's Polyphony, whose recent recordings of Pärt, Tavener and others have been revelations of choral singing, brings a comparable firmness, tonal opulence and refinement to this new repertoire, which will undoubtedly gain new admirers as a result' (Daily Telegraph)
'Above all, these performances by Stephen Layton's Polyphony are breathtakingly beautiful, powerfully expressive without trace of forced sentimentality. Hyperion's Disc of the Month for March should become one of the year's classical hits' (Musicweek)
'Every one of the works on this mesmerising Hyperion release is deliciously lyrical and harmonically sumptuous, but spiced with delicate dissonances that are Lauridsen's signature … Every performance here is delivered with liquid perfection'
'This is compelling and challenging music that deserves wider performance. The world-class ensemble Polyphony has made many first-rate recordings, and this is another - and it will be an immediate acquisition for this composer's growing legions of fans … if you love choral music, Lauridsen's work is required listening' (www.classicstoday.com)
'exquisitely sung by Polyphony with strong support from the Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton' (Observer)
'The sound is very clean, very focused and detailed, and has remarkable sound-stage depth. Even more so as an SACD … The bottom line is, if you aren't familiar with Lux Aeterna, your life is the poorer for it. You do need a recording of it'
(Stereophile Magazine, USA)
Reviews for Nocturnes
CLASSIC FM MAGAZINE OPERA AND VOCAL DISC OF THE MONTH
'This second, secular anthology is, if anything finer than its predecessor, elevated by the heavenly work of all concerned with its making, and the compelling eloquence of Lauridsen's sublime music....Polyphony’s love for words and music register with unwavering conviction... Stephen Layton's grasp of the polished idiom and his innate musicianship crown this essential release, which under his direction speaks directly to the heart' (Classic FM Magazine)
'I hold these truths to be self-evident: 1) Rainer Maria Rilke was a genius. 2) Morten Lauridsen is a genius. 3) Lauridsen’s a cappella setting of Rilke’s Contre Qui, Rose is one of the most singularly beautiful pieces of vocal music in the history of Western Civilization. 4) Polyphony’s new Hyperion recording of Contre Qui, Rose is a Record To Die For. (The rest of the disc isn’t too shabby, either' (Stereophile, USA)
'What more can one say of the singing other than that it is Polyphony? This ensemble - surely one of the best small choirs now before the public - invests everything it sings with insight, crisp ensemble and tonal warmth' (Daily Telegraph)
'Nocturnes creates a complex and strange beauty that doesn't sound like any other composer. Yet for all its musical intricacy, the work has a direct and powerful emotional impact—not the impact of a scream, but of an intimate whisper that cuts right through you. Listening to these pieces repeatedly, I find my tough, old heart filled with both wonder and gratitude' (Slate Magazine, USA)
'This is a superb issue, with the engineers capturing the full sonority of the choir, orchestra and soloists to perfection and with diction being as clear as crystal throughout' (MusicWeb)
' … this sumptuous CD by the English vocal ensemble Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton. Their glorious sound and subtle interpretations do complete justice to Lauridsen's scores, including the Mid-Winter Songs, Les chansons des roses and the brand-new, rapturous Nocturnes, of which this disc is the premiere recording. The Polyphony performances make it clear why Lauridsen is today's preeminent choral composer; you'll hear every nuance of voicing and harmony, enveloped by a choral sound that is shaped by a masterly hand, with quicksilver changes and contrasts. The Britten Sinfonia is featured in the Mid-Winter Songs; the other works are a cappella, sung here at a standard against which all subsequent choral recordings should be judged' (The Seattle Times)
'Lauridsen's music sounds fresh and full of interesting ideas'
… It is no surprise to learn of the composer’s devotion to music of both the Medieval and Renaissance periods; his command of the (at times) very complicated polyphonic textures is second-to-none as is the creation of the seemingly never-ending melodic lines … if this isn't a masterpiece of late-twentieth-century choral-writing I don't know what is! From a choir as good as Polyphony (and wow, is it good in this piece!) everything falls perfectly into place – fervent, passionate singing of fervent, passionate music, superb diction, perfectly judged climaxes and a range of colours that stands as an example of how choral music should be sung!' (Classicalsource.com)
'You know something's up when two of the highest-profile and most honored American composers of serious choral music keep getting onto planes and heading to England to have their work recorded' (CNN news, USA)
'Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) is at present considered to be the brightest star in the American choral firmament and rightly so. He is a perfectionist who commands an outstanding technique, and is able to create elegantly-finished works of art that radiate with the glow of what is truly right and inevitable. The composer's craftsmanship further leads to an amazing balance between the contemporary and the timeless. Doubtless this disc also attests to Lauridsen's superb ability to write for choral voices while creating those atmospheric sounds which bring a feeling of inner peace to even the most unwilling ear. In this recording, the composer uses predominantly secular texts, emphasising most strongly his passionate devotion to poetry and the performances are no less riveting. Stephen Layton marshals his choral and orchestral forces to telling effect and both singers and players display that austere discipline which is so vital to produce a blended and cohesive sound and do justice to Lauridsen's harmonic language. Sound, presentation and annotations are as usual, of the highest standards' (Classical.net)
'...a disc that is filled with lovely music. Performances are excellent. Anyone who is interested in the best of choral music of our time will treasure this disc'
'This recording is a fine example of Polyphony's exquisite range and Stephen Layton's still in maintaining the balance between voices and ensemble' (HMV Choice)
'This is great stuff, and it's given its best imaginable realization by Stephen Layton and his crack vocal ensemble Polyphony... The sound, recorded in two different London churches in 2006, has a pleasing resonance that preserves the essential detail among the voices while offering proper balance with the instruments. For choral - and especially Lauridsen - fans, neglecting this disc is not an option' (ClassicsToday.com)
'Lauridsen's Mid-Winter Hymns unfolds as an astutely constructed choral symphony, with bouncy asymmetrical rhythms and lusty choral writing leading to a meditative fadeout. Les chanson des roses is a polyphonic delight that strategically delays the entry of the piano until the very end. Lively, confident performances'
(Choir & Organ Magazine)
'There could be few choirs better equipped than Polyphony to bring his music to life, with their pure sound and lively musicianship … the recent Ave Dulcissima Maria is for a capella male chorus and searingly beautiful. The final Nocturnes is a triptych of settings of Rilke, Pablo Neruda and James Agee … all three brimful of the exquisite beauty that is Lauridsen's special possession' (Manchester Evening News)
'This is celestial and spine-tingling stuff. Contemporary choral music really doesn't come any better than this' (Daily Express)
'Stephen Layton's splendiferous disc - the second of Lauridsen's music by these performers - should be on the shelf of each and every choral-music aficionado' (Fanfare, USA)
Review for 'Prayer: The Songs of Morten Lauridsen' (Cowitz Bay)
On Prayer, and the Arts Songs of Morten Lauridsen:
A Conversation (Fanfare Magazine, USA)
Composer Morten Lauridsen should need no introduction to most Fanfare readers. One of the foremost composers in America today, he has produced a body of choral works which are highly acclaimed and often performed; which have won him, as one of many awards, the National Medal of Arts in 2007. Descriptions of his music most often include words like radiant, inspiring, uplifting, inspirational, sublime, and even at that do not do justice to the effect they have on audiences and performers around the world. His is the name that I most often invoke in reviews when I refer to the new renaissance in choral music, not because his style is backward looking, but because it encompasses the same transcendent approach to music that was core to the great works of that earlier period.
Choral music makes up the greater part of Lauridsen’s oeuvre, but there are a few other works: a symphony, a fanfare for brass sextet, a sonata for trumpet and piano, and a set of theme and variations for piano. It is the choral music, though, that has been his life’s work, and it is that which has brought him fame. Closely allied to it, however, often reworked from or a source for a choral work, is a small body of solo vocal works. These—unfairly—have not gotten the same attention as the works for groups of voices, even though they carry the same exquisite sense of emotions perfectly captured. It is to those works that his newest CD, a complete collection of his solo vocal works, is dedicated and that is the occasion for this interview. Prayer is the title of the CD, a limited edition release available exclusively through the distributor of his sheet music, Hal Leonard. It features baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan on piano. They are joined by soprano Caryl Hughes for the duets.
The recording was presented to me as a project especially close to the composer’s heart. The fact that he produced this release himself, rather than entrusting it to someone else, seems to underscore its importance. So I began our email interview by asking what led to his decision to self-produce, and how the project and recording came about.
His answer returned quickly. “I met the noted Welsh opera star Jeremy Huw Williams in Wales during a concert tour of my music conducted by Paul Mealor. Jeremy and his distinguished accompanist Paula Fan began programming my songs on their concert tours throughout the world, many of which had already been recorded by various artists on numerous CDs over the years. Jeremy suggested doing an all-Lauridsen recording, to have nearly all my songs composed over my entire career together on one disc and one that would include several premiere recordings. He interested a well-known recording label in undertaking the project. I asked to see Jeremy’s contract with the label prior to his signing and found the label’s compensation to the performers and the publisher totally unacceptable. I therefore decided to personally underwrite the entire recording so that it would be in the hands of the artists.”
I was, of course, very curious as to which label that might be, but he diplomatically ignored my hinted interest in the identity of the label and went on to describe the release and how it was produced.
“The limited edition recording that resulted was a collaborative effort involving the performing artists, the composer, and California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who wrote the extensive program notes. I worked closely with the artists during their recording sessions and was involved with all aspects of the program and booklet design. The songs are very diverse in musical approach, ranging from direct to abstract—always in response to all aspects of the textual content—and in a variety of languages on texts by esteemed poets whose words resonated deeply with me. The collection will broaden the knowledge of my work among those that are only familiar with my choral compositions.”
It was with those choral compositions that I was most familiar as well, but his art songs were not unknown to me. There is an earlier CD, Northwest Journey, a wonderful 2000 release on the RCM label, which included many of the solo vocal works written up to that time. The relatively small number of works, the flawless technique they all display, and some comments remembered from earlier reading led me to make a comparison: “You are, like Ravel, a fastidious craftsman, polishing a work until it is perfect. Or so I have read. So I am not surprised that your whole solo oeuvre fits onto one CD.”
Lauridsen had his own ideas regarding comparisons and influences. “In the top echelon of composers I have admired over the years are those who demonstrated the ability to write an elegant and unforgettable lyric line. Not only the great art song composers of the past such as Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann—Copland, Barber, Rorem, Britten, and Bolcom to name a few more recent ones—but also the great composers for the Broadway stage: Kern, Porter, Rodgers, etc. I grew up with this music, and my esteem for these gifted composers has never lessened.”
So was that what prompted him to rework certain of his choral pieces for solo voices? Or was this a result of commissions or requests, or some other personal need or inspiration?
“There are long lyric lines in most of my music, and those found in certain works that were originally conceived for chorus lent themselves readily to versions for solo voice and/or mixed duet—Sure on this Shining Night, Dirait-on, O Magnum Mysterium—and two works originally composed for solo voice or mixed duet—Prayer and Ya eres mía—in turn lent themselves to choral versions later. I am very fond of the four mixed duets on the Prayer recording; a man and a woman singing to each other on elegant poetry of Rilke, Gioia, Neruda, and Agee. It was my idea to compose various versions of these works, and it has been rewarding to find that solo singers have embraced them now as part of their repertory.”
In Prayer, Williams, Hughes, and Fan include three works that otherwise appear unavailable commercially: two recent works, Ya eres mía in the version for two solo voices and Two Songs on American Poems, as well as A Backyard Universe, his earliest work here, written over 50 years ago. What was his response to revisiting this early student work, written in 1965? Does he love all of his musical children equally?
“In order to have a complete collection of my songs written over my career, it was important to include my first cycle on poems by Harold Witt, written about his young children. I look back on that work from across the decades with a special fondness, as it was an important early stepping-stone in writing for the voice. There is a certain raw exuberance in the work in both the vocal and piano writing. As a teacher, I have always been interested in examining composers’ early works to see how they began and how they then developed.”
His early interest in art songs, involving another cycle written just two years later, provides a further interesting connection to his choral works.
“Thirty years ago I approached peermusic in New York City as a possible publisher for my art songs. Peer has had a strong commitment to song publishing over many years—they were one of the three publishers of the Ives 114 Songs, for example—and I very much admired a publisher brave enough to value and support this rarified genre that generates very little income for either publisher or composers.
“Among the pieces I left with peer following the meeting in New York was my song cycle on poems by Howard Moss, A Winter Come. About that same time, peer had employed the noted vocalist and teacher of art song at Juilliard, Paul Sperry, to go through the existing peer catalog and select songs for an upcoming peer anthology of American art song. Peer threw my handwritten manuscript of A Winter Come into the pile of songs Paul was to peruse. Peer shortly afterword received a call from Paul, saying, ‘Who is this guy? The songs from A Winter Come are marvelous.’ Two of the songs were then included in the peer anthology, and one of the highlights in my life was to see that anthology in the window of Patelson’s sheet music store next to Carnegie Hall, with my songs included among those of Ives, Rorem, and others.
“I told Todd Vunderink, director of peermusic classical, with whom I have worked closely for over three decades now, that I would be submitting choral works as well in the future. He remarked that peer did not have an extensive choral catalog, but would be willing to consider any submissions.
“After the premiere of the Madrigali: Six ‘FireSongs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems, I sent the score to Todd, saying it was a very challenging a cappella piece in Italian that only the finest choirs would tackle. A couple of weeks later he called and said that peer had reviewed the piece and had two comments: They loved the cycle and, although they had no idea if it would generate much income because of its length and difficulty, they were not about to see this work in some other publisher’s catalog. I told him that this was the kind of publisher to which I wanted to commit my works.
“The Madrigali has been a steady seller for 30 years and has numerous recordings. Premier choral conductors such as Dale Warland, Eric Ericson, and Donald Neuen immediately programmed the work upon publication. Peermusic thereafter became the publisher of O Magnum Mysterium—one of six Latin a cappella motets—Les Chansons des Roses, Lux Aeterna, Nocturnes, etc., etc.: all of my choral music for the past three decades. It all started with peer’s commitment to my songs. It is gratifying for me to know that the immense worldwide sales of these works provides peermusic financial support for publishing the far more rarified genre of art song.”
The support from peermusic which Lauridsen describes is the sort of relationship that most composers can only dream of, and is a noteworthy testimony to the quality of his music, choral and vocal. And there is a marvelous irony that the publisher’s commitment started with the songs. No doubt they look back at that decision with great pleasure.
Much as I admire the vocal settings of works that were originally for chorus, I had to say that I was a little surprised by the decision to recast O Magnum Mysterium for solo voice, for instance, because of the long line, the mostly restrained dynamic with a huge climax, and an almost two-octave range. Hard enough for a good soprano—or tenor—section, those qualities demand a soloist of singular ability. That was why I presumed that, just as many of the composer’s choral works were the result of close relationships with outstanding choirs, especially the Los Angeles Master Chorale, so might the solo works be with vocalists. I asked if any of his solo vocal works been commissioned, or are there any other singers who have been strong advocates that he would care to name.
“The solo version of O Magnum Mysterium is constantly performed around the world, accompanied by either piano or organ. Soprano Jane Thorngren did the premiere recording on my Northwest Journey CD, which also includes Sunny Wilkinson and Shelly Berg’s fabulous performance of my theater song Where Have the Actors Gone. I have worked closely in the past few years with my colleague at the USC Thornton School of Music, Rod Gilfry, who premiered my solo voice setting of Dana Gioia’s Prayer and, along with Rod’s daughter Carin, my mixed duet versions of that work and Sure on this Shining Night.”
That theater song is a particularly interesting part of Lauridsen’s body of work, an apparent outlier among songs that seemed to me more influenced by the music of the church and the recital hall than the musical stage. I listened again to Where Have the Actors Gone, in Williams and Fan’s new recording, and in that very different recording the composer mentioned above with Wilkinson and Berg. It is that earlier recording, in fact, that makes a connection for me to Stephen Sondheim and his show Follies. Lauridsen’s song, written in 1976, suggests that he could have been equally successful in that genre. I wondered if, in the 40 years since, he had considered the possibility of pursuing that style further, even to the point of writing a work for the musical stage.
He first offered a different perspective on some of his works. “As you could hear from the mixed duet version of the Neruda [Ya eres mía], it is another in my series of songs that have roots in songs from the Broadway theater stage: Sure on this Shining Night, Where Have the Actors Gone—the performance by jazz artists Sunny Wilkinson and Shelly Berg is exceptional—Prayer, even Dirait-on to a certain extent. All of these story-songs have long, lyric lines. This is a song about a relationship ending, written as an allegory of a play coming to a close. It’s actually one of my personal favorites. It is a tightly-knit passacaglia over a modulating sequence in standard rounded binary form.”
I wasn’t missing the parallel; much of Follies uses the same type of metaphor.
“I have considered writing a work for the musical stage,” he continued, “which will probably happen in the next life.”
Next life or no, I will try to be there for the opening of that musical, if at all possible.
The mention of Dirait-on in the context of a theater piece reminded me of a particular issue I wanted to raise. I had described it in my introductory email as a “pet peeve” regarding recorded performances of that work, and Lauridsen responded immediately to that idea.
“Your peeve with various recordings of Dirait-on are probably the same as mine, having to do with tempo flexibility, musical approach, style of performance, etc. I find many conductors are clueless in such matters, also reflected in performances of O Magnum Mysterium, Sure on this Shining Night, Lux Aeterna, etc.”
He went on to suggest a performance standard: “Wonderful performances of these and others of my works are featured on Michael Stillwater’s award-winning documentary, Shining Night - A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen. Information on that film is at mortenlauridsen.net.”
It is a marvelous film, as I found out later, but pleased because I had an opportunity that I had not anticipated, and exhibiting more bravery than good sense, I pursued the subject without having viewed it.
“Dirait-on,” I observed, “is one of your most popular pieces, and I have found that it is the one work that is most likely to bring recognition among those who are not choral music fans. Yet it is part, and really the culmination of, a beautifully wrought cycle of songs on texts by Rilke. I have complained in the past that when the piece is performed alone, that it is too often sentimentalized, seemingly on the quality of the melody rather than a perception of the text and its context. I am also put off when I hear performances and recordings of the full song cycle where the ending is similarly over-milked. This does not seem to happen in recordings in which you participate as pianist.
“I hear some world-weary bitterness in this piece, the rose as metaphor for the object of a failed romantic love, almost like a song that Edith Piaf would have sung. And yet, a version of this piece for two solo voices, without the cycle, suggests I may have misread your intention. Would you care to comment?”
Lauridsen’s response was succinct: “There is no bitterness at all in Dirait-on. I conceived it as a chanson populaire, or French folksong, about a rose being a bit narcissistic through self-caressing. It is a light piece and should be sung simply and directly with much tempi rubato. It was the first of the Rose Songs cycle composed, the rest coming later. The initial song in that cycle is based on fragments of melodies that are revealed in full later in the work.”
Fair enough. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a rose is just a rose. Too bad, as I was rather taken with that Edith Piaf “connection,” not least because of the coincidence of the title of her theme-song, La Vie en rose. And Rilke leaves so much to the reader.
Of course, susceptibility to a range of interpretations is a hallmark of the best poetry, and Morten Lauridsen is well known for the quality of the texts that he sets. I asked what happens, as he is reading poetry, which makes one particular poem or poet stand out, besides the adaptability to that long line that he prefers.
“I initially respond viscerally to poems,” he replied, “and then explore all facets of the poem and the poet in deciding whether to set to text to music or not. I have chosen poems by Neruda, Gioia, Graves, Lorca, Moss, Rilke, Witt, Agee, and Italian Renaissance poets, as well as numerous sacred texts in both English and Latin. I choose my musical materials—harmonies, melodies, form, rhythm, stylistic approach, etc.—to complement the content, style, era of creation, language, etc. of the poet. This is why there are such diverse musical approaches and contrasts among the cycles, from the atonal and highly colorful and gestural Cuatro Canciones, to the Renaissance-based Lux Aeterna, to the passionate Madrigali and Mid-Winter Songs, to the gentle and more impressionistic Chansons, etc.”
There are many styles, but much of the impression I have of Lauridsen’s music centers around a certain numinous quality found in his music. In fact, on the composer’s web site and in the film, musicologist Nick Strimple is quoted as saying that he is, among American composers, unique in being what might be called a mystic. It is a wonderful quote. There are other composers to whom that descriptor has been attached—Arvo Pärt, Olivier Messiaen, and Paweł Łukaszewski come to mind—whose mysticism arises from deeply held religious convictions. I asked if he thought this descriptor of his music is apt, and if so, from where his sense of the transcendent arises.
He avoided the question at first: “Regarding the concept of my being a ‘mystical’ composer, I will leave that to others to decide.”
Others, of course, have decided that, which is why I was asking. Not only does Strimple say that, but Dana Gioia uses that descriptor, as well, in the notes to Prayer. I am inclined to agree, as well, though I am suspicious of labels. Regardless of the label itself, there does seem to be a transcendent quality to Lauridsen’s music that appeals to many listeners and musicians. Some of it, I presume, comes from the choice of text, and much from the way that he uses line and harmony. I felt sure, however, that there was more than the mechanics of composition and the style that he had developed over the years that accounts for that way of expressing himself. In fact, many have been suggested over the years: life events, a particular faith, his retreat on Waldron Island, his time alone in that fire tower near Mount St. Helens.
Like all such questions, this had been asked of him before: “On Christmas day in 1999, I was interviewed on Scott Simon’s nationally broadcast radio program and he asked, ‘What is there about this music that goes so deeply inside of us?’ My answer was that I did not know, that creative artists are sometimes able, through their art, to get to that place that is beyond words that cannot be explained. Certain of my works, especially the sacred Latin settings, seem to have been able to transcend to that place, possibly through a combination of the deep effect the texts had on me and the pristine beauty and quietness in the place of composition on a remote island in a rustic waterfront cabin by candlelight on a 50-dollar spinet piano. I was able to reach very deeply inside in this environment with those texts.”
In this CD’s program notes, Gioia describes the arrival at that current, ecstatic/sensuous style—my term—through a severe crisis of some sort. I asked if he would be willing to say something about that crisis and how it brought about the changes that we hear in his more recent, and most famous, music.
“Parts of the 1970s and 80s were trying times for me, involving personal relationships and other things, and the music of that period reflected that. There is Angst in much of this music: the Mid-Winter Songs on Poems of Robert Graves, the Madrigali: Six ‘FireSongs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems, the jazz/cabaret song Where Have the Actors Gone, the Cuarto Canciones on Poems by Lorca, my Symphony I, the thorny Variations for Piano, etc.”
Gioia describes this change of style as a metamorphic process, bringing Lauridsen eventually to a unique style and place as a composer. Being quite taken, as well, with some of his earlier music—the atonal Lorca settings included here, for instance—I had to ask: If the right text presented itself, could he imagine himself returning to an earlier style, or evolving to something very different than what he is doing now? And what would that involve, did he imagine?
“One can see how closely my musical approach is connected to the texts of my music; the Graves cycle, for example consists of five movements, all with the Winter theme, but that cycle is also a reflection on Graves’s relationship with two women in his life. The opening Lament for Pasiphaë is dramatic and full of musical edges of all kinds—rhythm, harmony, dynamics, etc.—because he had been left by his long time mistress, Laura Riding. In the poem of the second movement, Graves depersonalizes her, turning her into ice, and the music is crystalline and spare. But then he finds love again in the person of Beryl Hodge, and the music warms up and the edges and Angst disappear. In the fourth poem, Graves finds himself ‘once more a poet again’ and ‘finds no winter anywhere to see,’ and the music is light and playful, reflecting his joy and delight. The last movement is a prayer to keep his heart from being broken again, and the music is quiet and direct until a recap of the opening dramatic gestures from the first movement, reminding us all that, as much as we can pray for happiness, there is the possibility that it could be fleeting. That theme of the temporal fragility of joy runs through much of Grave’s poetry, due in large part to his experience in World War I. It is crucial for choral conductors, when preparing a work, to explore in depth all aspects of the text and of the poet first, and then see how the music relates to the words.
“After a period of reflection following the Madrigali, I composed the lighter cycle Les Chansons des Roses on delightful French poems by Rilke in 1993. The following year I was appointed composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Paul Salamunovich. Paul was an expert on Gregorian chant and the sacred Latin liturgy, having been choir director at a Catholic church for decades. I composed music for him that reflected his expertise, starting with O Magnum Mysterium and then the Lux Aeterna and Ave Maria. His Grammy-nominated recording of these works and others remains iconic in the choral world. The music here reflects characteristics and procedures of chant and High Renaissance sacred music, especially as we see in the music of Josquin.
“The musical materials of the three primary movements of the Nocturnes, each reflecting poems related to night in French, Spanish, and English by Rilke, Neruda, and Agee, relate intimately to the poetic content, language, style, time of authorship, etc. My more recent, atonal Canticle/O vos omnes for solo clarinet—with multiphonics—women’s choir, and chimes belongs to my series of abstract works. A future composition project may include Madrigali, Book II.”
So, perhaps the development of style is not so linear. But there are those other influences, so beautifully presented in the film Shining Night. Waldron Island is a sanctuary that allows Lauridsen to come in touch with the sublime: the sea, the sea light and air, the sand of the beach, the special land and people. I originally thought, when I had read about Waldron Island and the earlier job for the Forest Service in a remote fire tower, that it was the seclusion that fed his art; that gave him the chance to compose. That isn’t all of it, though. As the film makes clear, he is not a hermit, even there.
“I am not a hermit at all,” he wrote back. “I simply do my best work while alone for periods of time. It is the quietness and pristine beauty of Waldron Island that opens a special creative window for me.”
He mentions in the film that he first connected with the island as a small boy.
“I started going to Waldron while in grade school. It was a sanctuary for me and an escape from a terribly abusive father. My younger brother eventually drank himself to death as a result of the abuse.”
I asked if he sees his music, then—at least some of it—as a balm to the wounds of living: his and others. And does he feel, at times, as if he is a conduit to something bigger than himself?
His answer to another self-perception question was characteristically muted: “Judging from the large amount of mail I constantly receive from listeners, I know that certain works of mine serve as a balm to others, especially my setting of Dana Gioia’s Prayer, the Lux Aeterna, and O Magnum Mysterium. And I do feel that, perhaps, I am a conduit in some way.”
Clearly, there are a lot of people who find this so, to the point that he was recognized for “composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide” when President Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 2007.
“The National Medal of Arts was a huge surprise; I was only the eighth classical composer to be so honored. Copland, Carter, and Bolcom are among the others. It was amazing to receive it along with Andrew Wyeth, Les Paul, and five others in a White House ceremony. And I think it was a real recognition of the importance of choral music in the fabric of American culture.”
At 73, Lauridsen continues to compose, and teach, and support those who perform his music. His teaching at USC, in particular, requires that he spend some significant time in Los Angeles. Does that creative fire sometimes alight in the city as well as on the island?
“My teaching schedule at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music allows certain days for creative work, so I have been able to do that as well as fulfill my responsibilities at the university, including chairing the department of composition for a dozen years and founding the Advanced Film Scoring Program. And my home in the Hollywood Hills is situated apart from the bustle of the city, so I am able to compose there as well.”
While we were corresponding, he attended a performance that included the choral version of Ya eres mía. Listening to the recording he kindly provided me, I could not help thinking how fortunate he has been in colleagues and relationships. These include the many years at USC, both as student and on the faculty, plus the residency with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and his relationship with the superb choral conductors who have led that ensemble, as well as Suzi Digby and The Golden Bridge vocal ensemble in the new live recording, and many more. He has commented on how the association with Paul Salamunovich resulted in some of the chant- and liturgically-inspired works. I asked how this quality of music-making has influenced other of his works over the years, and how some of those relationships, like the residency, came about.
“The premiere of the choral version of Ya eres mía, with The Golden Bridge vocal consort conducted by Suzi Digby in Beverly Hills, was absolutely wonderful in all ways. Suzi is a brilliant conductor, a legend in Britain, and the choir she has formed in Los Angeles contains top-notch singers. I think this Neruda setting will become one of my most performed works.
“Members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale board of directors attended the choral/orchestral premiere of my Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves by the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra and Chorus in 1983 and brought the work to the attention of the LAMC conductor, Roger Wagner. He and the Chorale performed it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1985, as did his successor, John Currie, in 1990. Members of the board also became aware of the CD recording of my choral cycles by Oregon’s chamber chorus Choral Cross-Ties, and the board president, Marshall Rutter, then commissioned my O Magnum Mysterium as a gift for his wife, Terry Knowles. It was the first piece of mine in my role as the Chorale’s composer-in-residence, premiered by the Chorale in December of 1994.”
There were still many questions, and time and space were running out. What lies ahead as far as composing and teaching? Are there interesting projects on the horizon that he can discuss? And is he, if I might presume, thinking at all about retirement from teaching, so that he can devote even more time to reading, contemplating, and composition?
“I will be retiring from the USC Thornton School of Music at the end of the spring semester, 2017. It will mark exactly 50 years of teaching college classes there. But I will continue to do university residencies around the world—I’ve done more than 100 so far—and choral festivals in my role as honorary artistic president of INTERKULTUR/World Choir Games, as well as attending screenings of the Shining Night film. I plan on moving to my home in the San Juan Islands of Washington State to continue composing, traveling, and experiencing this magical part of the planet.”
And one last, slightly impertinent, question: How important is it to him that his music outlive him?
“I do want my music to last.” He replied. “And I think some of it will.”
I think his legions of admirers, musicians and audience, have no doubts about that.
LAURIDSEN O Magnum Mysterium. A Winter Come. Ya eres mía. 4 Canciones.2 Dirait-on.1 A Backyard Universe. Where Have The Actors Gone 2 Songs on American Poems1 • Jeremy Huw Williams (bar); 1Caryl Hughes (sop); 2Peter Esswood (vc); 2John Reynolds (cl); Paula Fan (pn) • COWITZ BAY 3599 (61:24 Text and Translation)
This article originally appeared in Issue 40:3 (Jan/Feb 2017) of Fanfare Magazine.
Review for 'Sure On This Shining Night'
Voce; Voce Chamber Artists/Mark Singleton
American Record Guide, Jan/Feb 2011
This highly varied and beautifully performed collection is apparently the tenth CD devoted entirely to the works of American master Morten Lauridsen. Like the bulk of them, this one involves the composer's direct collaboration. But while most extant CDs of his music are devoted almost exclusively to his choral cycles and individual choral miniatures, this one offers -- in addition to some of his better-known choral pieces -- the welcome chance for listeners to sample Lauridsen's smaller-scale vocal chamber works and art songs as well. And many of these latter works reveal entirely different compositional approaches than those we hear in his more familiar works. The only other CD that offers anything approaching this level of variety is Northwest Journey (N/D 2005), though the sound quality and perhaps the performances are mostly better here.
As I've written before, Lauridsen's style of compositon is driven to a great extent by the poetry that he chooses to set -- and he has a sure knack for finding the best poetry, whatever the original language may be (he never sets poetry in translation). In many of his best-known choral works, sacred sentiments and poetry of a more serene nature have inspired the kind of soft and expansively radiant music that most of his devotees know him by. Examples of this approach include the four choral settings (of verses by Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, and James Agee) comprising the Nocturnes, beautifully accompanied by Lauridsen himself at the piano. The third of these mostly warm and intimate gems is Sure on this Shining Night, the serene title number. The Neruda setting, Soneto de la Noche, is the tenderest love-poem imaginable -- and it tears my heart out whenever I hear it, especially as done by this stellar choir.
Then there's Chanson Eloignee, a captivating Rilke setting that I heard here for the first time. As the composer describes it in his lucid program notes, it expresses "the yearning of a heart for song and for love, and what it means to be given the gift of singing". We further hear an organ-accompanied version of the gently ethereal Agnus Dei movement from Lux Aeterna, the radiant requiem that Lauridsen composed during his mother's final illness. Yet another rare treat is the fetching art-song arrangement of his choral smash-hit, O Magnum Mysterium, for solo baritone and organ. The album ends with two lovely excerpts from Les Chansons des Roses (Rilke settings all), one of his most beloved choral cycles. Contre Qui, Rose is one of his quietest and most affecting efforts, and Dirait-on is another of his most widely sung pieces. The composer again graces this one at the piano.
But, at various times and circumstances of his life, Lauridsen's muse has seized upon verses of a darker, more depressive, or anxious nature -- usually prompting music of a more abstract or harmonically dense character. Thus chamber works like Be Still, My Soul, Be Still (for baritone, clarinet, cello, and piano) -- setting the angst-ridden poetry of A.E. Housman -- employ music of a turbulent and discordant nature. Then there's the bleak and frosty introspection of the three songs heard here from A Winter Come (for tenor and piano), in keeping with the chilly verses of Howard Moss. The two songs from Cuatro Canciones (for soprano, clarinet, cello, and piano) enhance the edgy anxiety and subtle disquiet of Federico Garcia Lorca's spare lines. In the three excerpts from the lovelorn Madrigali (for a cappella chorus), the use of a grating "fire chord" on top of a more chromatic approach helps to bring out the passionate anguish of the ancient Italian texts. Then there's the moody and deeply reflective aura of O Vos Omnes -- a moving canticle (for clarinet and women's voices) written both as a "farewell song" to Halsey Stevens, his friend and mentor and as a memorial to his younger brother. The composer describes it as "a kind of abstract blues".
Performances are absolutely stunning. Voce sings with tender warmth, exquisite nuance, and endearing spirit. They've got everything it takes (and more) to perform Lauridsen to perfection: the kind of clear vocal textures, pinpoint intonation, and dead-on accuracy that make his subtle rhythmic and harmonic designs bloom. The solo vocalists (soprano Sara Metcalfe, tenor Jack Anthony Pott, and baritone Paul Laurence Fletcher) are superb. That soloists of such caliber can be drawn from its ranks is a true measure of Voce's quality. Virtuoso clarinetist Thomas Cooke -- who appears in three works -- is an absolute wonder. The other supporting strings and keyboard players are all first-rate. Sound quality is marvelous: clear, intimate, and warm.
Summing up, this Lauridsen survey offers -- in terms of varied moods, emotions, and compositional styles -- the broadest range of them all. Most of the cycles here are not complete -- but that leaves room for the kinds of other pieces that make this album the most all-encompassing collection available. It's absolutely essential listening for any Lauridsen fan who wants to get to know his entire expressive palette. This is an independently-produced CD, but it's already available (for download, too) at Cdbaby.com, on iTunes and Amazon.com.
The Best Composer You've Never Heard Of
by Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal
It's been a long time since an American classical composer became famous, much less popular. Philip Glass was probably the last one whose name would be passably well known to the public at large, and even Mr. Glass isn't nearly as famous as, say, Aaron Copland. That says a lot about the marginal place of high culture in America—none of it good.
So who ought to be famous? Or, to put it another way, who's writing classical music these days that's accessible enough to satisfy lay listeners, yet serious enough to impress trained musicians? Morten Lauridsen, that's who.
Don't be surprised if Mr. Lauridsen's name is unfamiliar to you. If you sing in a choir or go out of your way to listen to new choral music, there's a better-than-even chance that you'll have heard of him. If not, not. Though Mr. Lauridsen's music is more widely performed than that of any other contemporary choral composer, he doesn't get talked about on television or written about in magazines, and highbrow music critics typically ignore his premieres. Yet he has no shortage of ardent fans, one of whom, the poet Dana Gioia, describes him as "one of the few living composers whom I would call great."
Mr. Gioia, the past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks these words of praise in a film documentary called Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen, which will receive its premiere on Feb. 7 (2012) in Palm Springs, Calif., followed by screenings in Cincinnati, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and other locations. (For more information about screenings and related public events, go to shiningnightfilm.net)
The film, directed by Michael Stillwater, is a heartening rarity, a thoroughly intelligent classical-music program that strikes an appropriate balance between words and music. Most of the talking is done by Mr. Lauridsen himself and all of it is to the point, but plenty of time is devoted to the music that is the true point of Shining Night, and by film's end you'll know what it sounds like and whether you want to hear more of it—as I expect you will.
The 68-year-old composer divides his time between Los Angeles, where he teaches composition at the University of Southern California, and a tiny island off the coast of Washington, where he lives in a renovated general store that overlooks Puget Sound. A man of meditative temperament who treasures "serenity and silence," he must find Waldron Island inspiringly quiet, since so many of his major pieces were written there. His best-known music is for chorus, and his most moving compositions, O Magnum Mysterium (1994) and Lux Aeterna (1997), are sacred choral works that give voice to the unassuming spirituality that is evident throughout Shining Night.
Says Mr. Lauridsen: "There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us." The musical language in which he embodies this simple belief is conservative in the best and most creative sense of the word. His sacred music is unabashedly, even fearlessly tonal, and his chiming harmonies serve as underpinning for gently swaying melodic lines that leave no doubt of his love for medieval plainchant. Nothing about his music is "experimental": It is direct, heartfelt and as sweetly austere as the luminous sound of church bells at night.
Though Mr. Lauridsen is a deeply serious artist, it's evident from watching Shining Night that there's nothing stuffy about him. He used to play trumpet in dance bands, and he still loves pop music, from Cole Porter and Miles Davis to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. What's more, he believes no less deeply in writing music that is not just for musicians, but for everybody. Of Lux Aeterna, he says that "I didn't want to write an elitist piece that only the very best choirs in the world could perform—I wanted to write a piece that would be within reach of many people, many performers. It's a piece with a message, and I didn't want to complicate that message with complicated musical language."
Much of Mr. Lauridsen's music, including Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium, has been recorded by Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the artists who gave the first performances of some of his greatest works. Come March 30, you'll also be able to order a DVD of Shining Night directly from the publisher. As of this writing, though, the film has yet to be scheduled for broadcast anywhere in America*. I don't know why, but I have a feeling that it has something to do with the fact that Mr. Lauridsen is neither an edgy avant-gardist nor a pop-culture panderer. He hasn't appeared on reality TV and his life, so far as I know, is devoid of scandal. All he does is compose radiantly beautiful music and lead what appears to be a wholly satisfying life, and these days that's not quite enough to make you a household name.
Time was when PBS would have aired Shining Night in a heartbeat. Why not now?
* Editor: KCET Los Angeles, largest public television network in America, began broadcasting Shining Night in May, 2013.