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Zurbaran's "Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose": An inspiration for the choral setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" by Morten Lauridsen

 

Francisco de Zurbaran's "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" 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 Zurbaran (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.

The painting projects an aura of mystery, powerful in its unadorned simplicity, its mystical quality creating an atmosphere of deep contemplation. Its effect is immediate, transcendent and overpowering. Before it one tends to speak in hushed tones, if at all. In 1993 Marshall Rutter, then president of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, commissioned me to write a piece in honor of his wife and their second anniversary to be premiered at the Master Chorale's Christmas concert in 1994.

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.!)

This brief, two-sentence text about the birth of Christ in the manger and the veneration of the Virgin Mary has inspired countless composers over the centuries, most notably Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), whose timeless Renaissance-era setting remains a beloved staple in the choral repertoire. I knew at once that it should be my text as well.

At the core of my work as a composer over the past 45 years are seven multi-movement vocal cycles, each centered on a single poetic theme, most often by one author, for example, Les Chansons des Roses on Rainer Maria Rilke's delightful poems penned in 1924, the Madrigali 'Fire-Songs' on Renaissance Italian poems, Cuatro Canciones, my chamber settings of Federico Garcia Lorca's poems about time and night and the Lux Aeterna on sacred texts about "light." And for each cycle I've selected my musical materials–harmonies, melodies, rhythm, formal construction, orchestration, etc., --to complement aspects of the texts I've chosen, including their style, content, language and historical context. The musical settings range from accessible and direct to atonal, abstract and highly coloristic.

For O Magnum Mysterium, I wanted to create, as Zurbaran 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 consonant 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.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ's birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart, as Zurbaran before me, a transforming spiritual experience within what I call "a quiet song of profound inner joy." I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

O Magnum Mysterium was premiered in 1994 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Widely recorded with thousands of performances throughout the world since then, it owes much to its visual model, Zurbaran's magnificent "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose."

This American composer, from across time and space, quietly tips his hat in gratitude.

Mr. Lauridsen is Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He received the 2007 National Medal of Arts "for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide."

This article appeared as a "Masterpiece" Essay in the Wall Street Journal on February 21, 2009.