Back in the saddle

Chorale’s current project, O magnum mysterium, focuses on contemporary choral music which resonates primarily on the emotional level. Our title is taken from a responsorial chant for the Matins of Christmas: O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,OMagnumMysterium

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb

was worthy to bear

our Saviour, Jesus Christ.


Two of our concert pieces are settings of this O magnum text, by Morten Lauridsen and Ola Gjeilo, composers with a fervid following amongst American choirs and audiences. In each case, the composer has manipulated his basically diatonic harmonic materials to unsettle his listeners-- arriving at climaxes, cadences and other resting points with lingering dissonances and delayed resolutions, then resolving with recognizable, reassuring musical language. Though the harmonies seem somewhat paradoxical, compared to those utilized for this scena by composers in the past, the impact is not dramatic, nor aurally or emotionally challenging. Lauridsen and Gjeilo experience the “great mystery” as homey, personal, and serene, if shrouded in shadow. Gjeilo reinforces this mood through naming his setting “Serenity.”

Other pieces on the program, though they do not share this direct a connection to Christmas imagery, express a similar sense of mystery, of light shining through darkness. Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, O salutaris hostia by Ēriks Ešenvalds, Rautavaara’s Herra armahda (excerpted from his Vigilia), and Knut Nystedt’s O crux, set Christian Biblical and liturgical texts which are notably emotional, rather than intellectual, in character. Pärt sets the Magnificat text (My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary’s response to being told she will give birth to Jesus, the son of God) in a style which subverts every setting of this text which precedes his-- purposefully undermining the usual and accepted word accents of the Latin text, and giving the soprano soloist a single pitch to sing, repeatedly, like a tolling bell, throughout the entire work, rather than a meaningful, human-scaled song or aria, presenting a young woman’s thoughts and feelings. The overall impact is dark and equivocal, and very different from that of Lauridsen’s and Gjeilo’s music: rather than the “homey, personal, and serene” feelings of those standing around a baby’s cradle, Pärt’s musical language expresses the emotions of a vast, unfeeling universe.

O salutaris hostia (O saving victim) sets a eucharistic hymn for the adoration of the blessed sacrament, written by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). “Adoration” is the operative word, in describing Ēriks Ešenvalds’ music: even “ecstasy” would not be too much. Primarily a duet for two high sopranos with low-pitched, slow moving choral accompaniment, the piece has none of the equivocation or darkness expressed in those above: “everlasting glory” and “life without end” are unabashedly set with the soloists’ highest-lying phrases. Rautavaara’s Herra armahda, which simply repeats the words “Lord have mercy” over and over again, is an entirely different matter: the harmonically dense, low-pitched choral texture is not relieved or illuminated by ecstatic soloists, but sounds on its own. The composer, through his utilization of five- four meter and dissonant, chromatic harmony, creates a sense of unquiet, even menace, which is left unsettled and unrelieved right through the final utterance of “have mercy.”

Nystedt’s O crux, one of the classic, iconic choral works of the twentieth century, sets an antiphon for Good Friday afternoon, picturing Mary, the mother of Jesus, kneeling at the foot of the cross. The composer utilizes a rich harmonic palate, and a wide tessitura (eight voices throughout, spread across the entire treble and bass vocal range), as well as passages of dissonant polyphony and extreme dynamics (pp to ff) to express an extreme response to the crucifixion, from searing pain to ecstatic exaltation.

And these are only four of our pieces! I’ll introduce the others in the weeks to come, leading up to our November 17-18 concerts.