Thursday, January 6, 2011

O Magnum Mysterium - The Living Tradition of Sacred Music

This is a beautiful, beautiful motet for the Christmas season. We mustn't forget that although shepherds and wise men came to adore Christ the Lord, the animals of the stable were there with the Holy Family before either came to worship the Great Savior. The text itself is taken from Matins for Christmas Day, although apparently the motet is commonly sung at Midnight Mass. Here is the translation:

O most awesome mystery
and sacrament divine and most wondrous:
that animals should look and see the Lord a babe newborn
beside them in a manger laid.
O how truly blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear and bring forth the Lord Christ Jesus.

Many settings of this text have been composed over the centuries. The settings of William Byrd and Palestrina, two great Catholic composers of the Renaissance Period, are rather popular, but two of my favorite settings are those by the Spanish Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and the still living American composer, Morten Lauridsen. 

Morten Lauridsen : O Magnum Mysterium sung by the Westminster Cathedral Choir at the Midnight Mass for Christmas 2009

I've found among the Renaissance composers Victoria is one of my favorites because of his clear,  even cadences as opposed to hiding them amidst the other voices. Morten Lauridsen I have yet to explore a lot of his music, but I really like the ethereal quality of his piece. It's very "floaty." I look forward to being able to study this type of music and compare and contrast these modern Catholic liturgical music with the old. 
I find it fascinating though that texts as old as these are still being set by composers to new musical compositions. These texts don't belong to the past. They are very much alive in the Church. Not only that, but new compositions of this text can be written that are just as beautiful as those of the Renaissance, even though the style is very different. 
Similarly, sacred music doesn't just consist of the music of the past, but is also welcoming of new compositions that contain the three criteria described in Pope Pius X's motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini: sanctity, goodness of form, and universality.  The works of both composers, Victoria and Lauridsen, exemplify these qualities even though they were composed hundreds of years apart. Sacred Music is not a dead or lifeless object in a museum. Rather, it is very much alive, with new compositions composed, sung, and appreciated alongside the old : a living tradition not unlike the Catholic liturgy it is meant for. I'm just beginning to discover these modern composers and the beautiful works they have created, so perhaps there will be more brought here as the new year progresses. I wish you all a blessed new year filled with beauty and truth!

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