Morten Lauridsen and the Comfort of Melody
BY MARTIN ANDERSON
I had seen the name of Morten Lauridsen with growing frequency over the past few years; he seemed to be attracting an ever-larger reputation among choral circles for a body of music that singers love to perform. But even though as long ago as 1998, I had noted a CD of his Lux aeterna and other choral works garnering a Grammy nomination, and several other recordings of his music have since emerged, somehow they had all escaped my clutches. It wasn't until now, with Hyperion's release of an all-Lauridsen CD (CDA67449) from the London-based choir Polyphony under their conductor Stephen Layton that I was able to hear what lay behind that reputation-and to discover it's an ability to handle choral textures as naturally as water flows downhill, and a melodic inspiration of similar spontaneity. No wonder he gets so many performances: this stuff must be marvelous to sing. And any listener who does not melt at the opening of Lux aeterna might as well throw his ears away. So I picked up the phone for a chat with the man himself, and caught him on the way out to the next day of the American Choral Conductors' national convention that had just seen the premiere of a new Lauridsen work, a set of three nocturnes.
First things first. Anyone coming across the name Morten Lauridsen would assume its bearer was Danish; was he, and if so, which generation? "Danish heritage-great-grandfather, on my father's side," he explains, in the relaxed and easy manner that seems to be characteristic of the man. "They were pioneers in the Seattle area. My great-aunt said that they spoke nothing but Danish for the first 20 years, The other side of the family was a mixture of Irish and German, and they settled in eastern Washington. I was raised in Portland, Oregon, and I still keep a cabin up in the San Juan Islands, on a very remote island where there's no electricity or indoor plumbing. In 1975, I bought an abandoned general store on the waterfront. The island is not ferry-served; mail comes in about three times a week by boat; and there are about 75 hardy souls on this island. In the summers, I become a carpenter and I work fixing up my cabin." Is this cabin the equivalent of Mahler's isolated Komponiehäuschen in Toblach in the Dolomites (preserved in very poor state, by the way-something ought to be done about it). "Absolutely! Many people have said that the serenity there, the closeness with nature and the abiding calmness have affected my music, and I think that's true. If you've explored my site (www.mortenlauridsen.com), you'll see there's a picture of an old piano up there, a 50-dollar piano on which I finished O magnum mysterium and the Lux aeterna. While I was working on these pieces, many visitors came by my cabin, and I literally had to put a sign on the front gate saying: 'Composing-come back at 4.30.' I'd look out the window and see a little crowd of people looking at their watch, and then at 4.30-bang, bang, bang on the door and in they would come! I usually spend my summer months up there. It's very important for me to go to a place of quietness and serenity, where I can reflect. I tend to be a meditative individual. I was on a forest-service look-out for 10 weeks many years ago, and it changed my life: I decided to go into music while I was on the look-out and came down to Los Angeles to continue my studies following that decision. I've been very happy I made that choice, because of so many fine choruses and vocalists here in Los Angeles. My second love is poetry, and I've devoted my creative life to setting texts to music, uniting my two passions."
Lauridsen may be conscious of his part in nature; is he also conscious of his part in a cultural tradition, downstream from composers like Samuel Barber and Randall Thompson? "Absolutely. I've always admired composers who know what to do with line, and those composers certainly did. I have composed a number of art songs as well, and I have a great love of the American musical theater-the music of Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and others. When I give talks about my music, I include those individuals alongside the great song-composers like Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. The craft of composing elegant melodic lines-so many composers are simply afraid to write one, which I think is regrettable-is something I've been honing my entire life.
"I'm very sensitive to the texts I set, and I design my musical settings so that they will complement the style and content of the poetry. My Lorca cycle, for example, is completely atonal, very abstract and coloristic, because the poetry itself is abstract. But in the Lux aeterna I harken back to Renaissance procedures, especially those found in the music of Josquin and Palestrina, to set texts that center on the more serene symbol of light. The opening of the Lux aeterna is like light emerging from the darkness, all against a double pedal in both the low and upper strings. The piece is meant to transport the listener to a place of inner peace, understanding, and enlightenment. I'm glad you think it's beautiful-it was certainly meant to be. On the other hand, the texts of the Madrigali are the absolute reverse of that, with their darkness and angst, so I used the complex harmonies you might find in Monteverdi and Gesualdo. I was so pleased when Stephen Layton wrote: 'We are going to record both the Lux aeterna and the Madrigali-two absolutely opposite compositional and textual styles, back-to-back." The Madrigali are much more consciously "verbal" than the other works here. "You're exactly right-and they're unified, of course, by the 'fire-chord' and the constant reference to fire, all centering around the idea of very passionate, mainly unrequited, love."
Lauridsen mentioned Palestrina as his springboard for Lux aeterna; for me, the sheer humanity and warmth of the music brought Lassus more readily to mind. "I'm a great admirer of Lassus. I was looking for a purity of sound, and Palestrina is a wonderful model, as is Josquin in his mass settings-those more intricate canonic procedures, for example, or the use of fauxbourdon, cantus firmus, Renaissance modality and formal structures, etc. I'm a student of history, and I see myself directly connected to these marvelous composers of the past who have left us such a treasure-trove of literature In composing the Lux aeterna and motets, I was working very closely with the distinguished conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Paul Salamunovich, who is an expert in the Latin liturgy. And so I wrote music that was right up his alley, and also music that illuminated the special kind of choral sound of the LA Master Chorale. My history with that ensemble, by the way, goes back to their founder, Roger Wagner, who conducted my Mid-Winter Songs on poetry of Robert Graves with the Master Chorale in 1985, as did his successor, John Currie, who conducted the same piece in 1990.
"I'll be coming back to England next year to record the Mid-Winter Songs with Stephen and Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia, as well as Les chansons des roses on poems by Rilke, and the brand-new Nocturnes that were just premiered, plus several sacred pieces. I'm very drawn to the idea of cycles-a singular idea, often by a single poet-and shaping my musical forces to complement that text." Do the words themselves spark a musical reaction, trigger the idea? "Absolutely. For example, the poetry that I set for the Nocturnes (my seventh vocal cycle)---several people at the premiere echoed my thought that Neruda's poem (from his 100 Love Sonnets) was the most beautiful love poem they've ever experienced. Of the new Nocturnes, one each is in French, Spanish, and English, all on texts related to night. I'm interested also in poetic ideas with a universal theme; for example, the idea of light in Lux aeterna-the universal symbol of illumination at all levels, including understanding, beauty, everlasting life, spirituality, etc.-I used to comfort myself upon hearing the news of my mother's impending death. I turned to my art, as other artists have, to cope with an intense personal situation. To go to my composing studio each day and set to music such reassuring texts was of great comfort to me, and I must say that I receive a great deal of mail from individuals who write and tell me that the Lux aeterna has brought them enormous solace in their grief."
Is Lauridsen a Christian? His conversation is beginning to suggest the deliberate expression of faith. "Absolutely. The church was very important to me as a young man, especially since I was coming from a less-than-happy childhood. A background rooted in Christian belief lends itself to the kinds of deeply spiritual settings I have composed. It's interesting that when I first started composing, my first choral works were all settings of the Psalms-I did five of those-and then turned more to secular settings. But of the seven cycles, only the Lux aeterna is based on sacred texts."
Would it then be fair to see Lauridsen's fascination with the human voice as an extension of this religious sentiment, part of the same impulse, in a general hymn of praise? "Not as much-I simply think that the human voice is the most beautiful instrument, and ensembles of human voices are the most personal forms of human expression. With that belief, and the natural affinity I have towards texts, it's a natural thing for me to set music for choruses and solo voices. Of course, there's very little market for publishers to publish art songs, but that hasn't made any difference to me at all: I simply write what appeals to me without the thought of financial gain. I signed with my publisher, Peer Music, initially because of their great commitment to art song. Peer was one of the early publishers of Charles Ives, for example."
Lauridsen has meantime rewarded Peer with sales figures that they could not have imagined when they first signed their contract with him. "Theodore Presser is the distributor for Peer, and three of my works have been their all-time best-selling publications since 1783, when they went into business. That's a long time ago! You know, the choral community is very tight, and when there are works that are written graciously for the voices and with meaning and depth, the community responds in kind. Peer tells me that they are closing in on a million sales of my scores. That's very heartening."
Lux aeterna has been ratcheting up performances at a rate that would please any publisher. Its composer has an explanation: "One of the reasons for the large number of performances of the orchestral version is that an ensemble of strings and seven winds is often within reach, budget-wise, of those performing organizations (including churches) that wish to program the piece. The size of the string component will vary with the size of the chorus; on the score, I give suggestions to the conductor as to the number of strings required. Last year there was an all-Lauridsen concert (all four received an E-mail from Stephen Layton saying, 'We love your music. We have been doing the Madrigali in concerts and we would like to record an all-Lauridsen CD to include that cycle plus the Lux aeterna and three motets.' The Madrigali, by the way, are designed for the very advanced choir-it's a tough piece to sing, a very complex piece in all ways, rhythmically, harmonically, melodically, and it's in Italian. I came to London last year and we had the most wonderful performance of the Lux aeterna in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and then at Norwich Cathedral; and then we went back to London and recorded it in St Luke's. At the same time as Hyperion was recording this new CD, Faber Music released a number of their editions of my works and now handles my Peer Music catalog in the United Kingdom. These editions and this new CD will make my work much better known in Europe."
What kind of working relationship did he have with Polyphony? "Spectacular! There was not a moment where I was not exposed to music-making of the highest level with this brilliant conductor, Polyphony, and the Britten Sinfonia. It was absolutely marvelous. The performances are stunningly beautiful, so sensitive to the texts and my musical scores. My music is in the finest hands with these musicians and Hyperion. These British musicians are among the world's finest."
LAURIDSEN Lux aeterna. Madrigali, "Fire Songs." Ave Maria. Ubi caritas et amor. O magnum mysterium. Stephen Layton, cond; Polyphony; Britten Sin. HYPERION CDA 67449 (66:45).
You know from the melodic phrases in the first bars of Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna (1995), for chorus, strings, and wind, that this is going to be a work that will put your soul through the wringer-it is, quite simply, extraordinarily beautiful, its gentle, modal string counterpoint introducing a warmly embracing wave of choral sound that hits you right in the heart. Its consolatory intensity-and, indeed, the sound itself-makes it a close cousin to the Faure Requiem; there's also a consanguinity with Brahms's German Requiem, and all three works, as Byron Adams points out in his fine booklet notes, were written on the deaths of their composers' mothers. Even though Lauridsen harkens back to the severer idiom of early polyphony (Adams explicitly calls Dunstable and Taverner to witness) that his technique partly emulates, the music never loses an essential gentleness. The obvious point of departure in American music is the work of Samuel Barber and, like him, Lauridsen turns to the oboe when he has an especially gorgeous tune to unfold, at the beginning of Lux aeterna (exquisitely played here, by the way); it returns at the end to help draw the work together; there's also a brief but wonderful cello solo that suggests someone ought to commission a concerto from him.
The rest of the CD is for a cappella chorus. The Madrigali of 1987-which Lauridsen christens "Fire Songs" because of his use of a "fire-chord" ("a B-minor triad with a scorching added C," Adams helpfully informs us) to unify the entire cycle-sounds rather like Gesualdo sieved through Barber, the rich harmonies of the latter's sound world (as in his Reincarnation, a work so lovely one regrets he didn't turn to the chorus more often) used to clad the expressive, often chromatic, gestures of the Italian Baroque. The fourth of the Madrigali, the deeply felt "fo piango" ("I weep"), is its emotional heart, where frequent recourse to dissonance indicates that there will be no relief for the distressed heart; Lauridsen restores the balance with the dancing rhythms of the following madrigal, "Luci sereni e chiare" ("Eyes serene and clear").
The three motets that complete the program-Ave Maria (1997), Ubi caritas et amor (1999), and O magnum mysterium (1994)-return us to the enveloping, comforting blankets of sound of Lux aeterna, although Ubi caritas et amor begins by setting out soberly from the plainchant. What's extraordinary about these pieces (as also of the larger pieces here) is how little time Lauridsen needs to turn the screws: as soon as he establishes his own harmonic idiom after the chant of Ubi caritas et amor (for example), he gives the sopranos a little leap, which has you drawing in your breath at its loveliness.
Having now caught up with the other all-Lauridsen CDs (Lux aeterna, Ave Maria, and 0 magnum mysterium with other works from the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Paul Salamunovich on RCM; the same three works-the Lux aeterna with organ accompaniment, giving it quite a different flavor-and Les chansons des roses from the Nordic Chamber Choir under Nicol Matt on Bayer; the Madrigali and Ubi caritas et amor from Donald Brinegar and his Singers on another RCM disc [one which has a solo voice-and piano version of O magnum mysterium]; the O magnum mysterium with Les chansons des roses and Mid-Winter Songs sung by Choral Cross-Ties Wider Bruce Browne on Freshwater Classical), I can report that, good though all those other recordings are, none of the other choirs comes close to Polyphony for the sheer refinement of tone, precision of intonation, and focus of sound-this is choral singing of the highest distinction. The recorded sound, too, is of exceptional clarity and warmth.
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.