Friday, February 20, 2009

A Chant-related Google Alert (Yes!)

Last week, I signed up for "Google Alerts" on the topic of "Gregorian Chant" - I really did! - and believe it or not, this was in my Inbox today: "It's a Still Life That Runs Deep," a piece written about the Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán - by the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. In, of all places, the Wall Street Journal! It's a good article, and I'm really glad I was Googled.

Francisco de Zurbarán's "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.

We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.

But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) -- known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ -- the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

Here's the painting itself:

Then, Lauridsen talks about the Christmas matins responsory, O Magnum Mysterium, comparing it with de Zurbarán's painting, and then discusses his own composition using the same Latin text:
The Latin text for the Christmas Day matins responsory, "O Magnum Mysterium," also celebrates the Virgin Mary as well as God's grace to the meek:

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!

(O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia!)


For "O Magnum Mysterium," I wanted to create, as Zurbarán had in paint, a deeply felt religious statement, at once uncomplicated and unadorned yet powerful and transformative in its effect upon the listener.

I also wanted to convey a sense of the text's long history and theological importance by referencing the constant purity of sacred music found in High Renaissance polyphony, especially in works by Josquin des Prez and Palestrina. The harmonic palette I chose, therefore, is simpler and direct; the complex chords abounding in my "Madrigali" and "Canciones" are nowhere to be found here. Further, both the musical themes and phrase shapes in "O Magnum Mysterium" have their roots in Gregorian chant, with a constant metric flow and ebb.

The piece seems to float, to hover in the air, due to a predominant use of inverted chords, recalling the Renaissance practice of fauxbourdon. Inclusion of the "Alleluia" descant over sustained pedal tones references yet another characteristic of the era, and dynamics throughout are subdued, contributing to the aura of meditation and prayer.

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word "Virgo," the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. It's the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

Nice, eh? Who would ever have thought such an article would show up in "Google Alerts"?

You can listen to Lauridsen's beautiful O Magnum Mysterium at the WSJ link, too.

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