Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna

Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943 in Colfax, Washington) is Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Thorton School of Music at the University of Southern California, where he has taught for over thirty years.

Raised in Portland, Oregon, Lauridsen attended Whitman College and worked as a Forest Service firefighter and lookout (on an isolated tower near Mt. St. Helens) before traveling south to attend USC, where he studied composition with Ingolf Dahl, Halsey Stevens, Robert Linn, and Harold Owen. Lauridsen chaired the Composition department at USC Thorton School of Music from 1990-2002 and founded the School's Advanced Studies Program in Film Scoring. At USC he has received the Phi Kappa Phi Creative Writing Prize, the Thorton School Outstanding Alumnus Award, The Ramo Award, the Lambda Delta Citation for Teaching Excellence and the Dean's Award for Professional Achievement. In 2007, he won the National Medal of Arts.

In Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple describes Lauridsen as "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered.... From 1993 Lauridsen's music rapidly increased in international popularity, and by century's end he had eclipsed Randall Thompson as the most frequently performed American choral composer."

Whether or not that last statement is correct is impossible to confirm - who has the time to actually count performances? Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting and useful comparison between two icons of American choral music. Though Thompson was more prolific, Lauridsen is hardly done with his compositional career. Thompson died in 1984 at the age of 85, while Lauridsen (in late 2012) is only 69 years old. Both composers were university trained, and had academic careers (Thompson taught at Wellesley College, Berkeley, University of Virginia, Princeton, Harvard, and the Curtis Institute of Music). Both specialized in choral music, writing both sacred and secular works, often drawing their texts from classical works of poetry and literature.

Stylistically, there are similarities as well: both composers expect high-quality singing (Thompson, in fact, spear-headed a major study of U.S. college choirs in 1935 which lead to major changes in their approach - moving from a carefree "doo-wop" kind of approach to something far more professional). Both appreciate the wide range of sounds possible from a good choral ensemble, and recognize that even four voices can produce numerous combinations of tones and sounds. Both write in a rich but clearly tonal style, heavily influenced by modal mixtures. The harmonic structures are replete with added sevenths, ninths, and fourths; even where the pitches can be arranged in a cluster, the sound is pungent without being harsh (as in Bartók, who was famous for his use of tone clusters). Both draw on the choral motet traditions of Lassus and Palestrina, often writing intricately woven intimate passages; more often than not, however, the choral parts are rhythmically similar, allowing nothing to obscure the text.

Lux Aeterna was written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale - an ensemble for which Lauridsen held the position of Composer-in-Residence from 1994 to 2001 The work was premiered April 13, 1997 by the chorale, in the version for chorus and chamber ensemble; two weeks later, a choral/organ version was premiered by the ensemble Choral Cross-Ties of Portland, Oregon, and (on the same weekend) by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at Loyola Marymount University in LA. the version for chamber ensemble includes a small orchestra of 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 1 bass trombone, and strings.

Written in five movements, Lux Aeterna might appear on the surface to be a substitute title for "Requiem" - after all, lux aeterna is Latin for perpetual (eternal) light, and the opening movement is, indeed, a text from the Catholic Requiem Mass; "requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine: et lux perpetua lucaet eis" (Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them). But what connects the five movements is not a liturgy; rather it is the reference in each to light, and one might view the collective movements as moving the listener from darkness into light, from sorrow into healing. Nowhere will the listener find the bombastic death trumpets of Verdi or Berlioz, nor the occasional but strong reminders of the overwhelming power of Death in the Requiem of Brahms. No, if you are looking for kinship between the requiem reference in Lauridsen and one of the many famous predecessors who have written a requiem, your best bet is Gabriel Faurè. Faurè saw his most beautiful Requiem as being a source of healing, as reflecting on the peace of death, not the tragedy of death; of welcoming death as the step towards eternal life. Indeed, Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna has been described as having "healing powers," and in sound, it is not dissimilar to that of Faurè, though with more modern harmonic and rhythmic language at the composer's disposal.

The following excerpt was written by Lauridsen himself, and appears on the inside cover of the published score(©1997, Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc.):

Lux in five movements, played without pause. Its texts are drawn from sacred Latin sources, each containing references to light. The piece opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the Requiem Mass with the central three movements drawn respectively from the Te Deum (including a line from the Beatus Vir), O Nata Lux, and Veni, Sancte, Spiritus.

The instrumental introduction to the Introitus softly recalls fragments from two pieces especially close to my heart (my settings of Rilke's Contre Qui, Rose, from Les Chansons des Roses, and O Magnum Mysterium) which recur throughout the work in various forms. Several new themes in the Introitus are then introduced by the chorus, including an extended canon on et lux perpetua. In Te, domine, Speravi contains, among other music elements, the cantus firmus Herzliebster Jesu (from the Nurembuerg Songbook, 1677) and a lengthy inverted canon on fiat misericordia. O Nata Lux and Veni, Sancte Spiritus are paired songs, the formal a central a cappella motet and the latter a spirited, jubilant canticle. A quiet setting of the Agnus Dei precedes the final Lux Aeterna, which reprises the opening section of the Introitus and concludes with a joyful Alleluia.

So, with this description, with these clues, what do we listen for? Here are some highlights.

Introitus: Requiem aeterna

Lauridsen begins with a single pitch (D), held in the very highest and lowest registers, pianissimo, and 6(!) octaves apart. This creates a sense of vastness, of both great depth and great height; anticipation builds, with the listener knowing not whether the piece will be fast or slow, joyful or sorrowful, major or minor. Filling the gap gradually, beginning near the bottom (actually, one octave above the sustained low (D) and moving upward, is a slowly moving eighth-note passage: this is the quote from his other works to which Lauridsen refers in his description above, and which will be woven throughout the rest of the movement:

Lux Aeterna Example 1 
The choral parts, a cappella, enter 16 measures later, in rhythmic unison, and repeating the same pitch (though forming a cluster on the pitches D, E, F#, and A). But it is not the pitches we notice; rather our ears are drawn to the chant-like quality. Even as the voices disperse in different directions, the overall effect is that of a simple, peaceful chant.

Listen for the canon Lauridsen mentions on the text "et lux perpetua lucaet eis" (and may perpetual light shine upon them). The technique of the canon here extends the text, reflecting the continuation of the shining light on their souls, without going on in perpetuity. Despite the change in texture, Lauridsen keeps the chant-like quality to the choral writing. With the return of the opening text ("requiem aeternam, Dominae"), Lauridsen brings back the opening music, which serves both to close out the opening movement and to transition into the second (recall that the five movements are played without pause).

In te, Domine, Speravi

Though the movement is labeled "In Te, Domine, Speravi", this portion of text is actually the last line heard in the second movement. The entire text is taken from the Te Deum. Beginning with a change to d minor (more modal than actually minor), this movement combines a cantus firmus in the instrumental chamber ensemble (played by the trombone) with polyphonic, often imitative, choral writing. The cantus firmus is "Herzliebster Jesu":

O dearest Jesus, how has though offended,
That such a cruel sentence hath been spoken?
What is thy guilt, what were the evil doings
Thou has committed?

It is a surprising juxtaposition, using this cantus firmus which flows from a very somber text with a Latin text taken from the Te Deum, the Catholic Church's hymn of joy. The movement is, in Lauridsen's own words, "particularly introspective, personal, complex, reflective, and thoughtful."

Lauridsen also mentions his homage to Renaissance motet writer, in particular Josquin Desprez, in varying the texture by writing in pairs of voices. Varying 4-part textures by using different combinations of 2 voices was a common, and very successful, technique frequently employed by Josquin.

O Nata Lux

The only entirely a cappella movement in the work, O Nata Lux is the centerpiece, both literally and figuratively. All of the texts refer to a light from a sacred source, but only in the third movement is Jesus mentioned by name as the source of that light. The instrumental chamber ensemble supports and enhances the singing in the movements on either side, but this movement stands for voices alone. Again, Lauridsen maintains a chant-like quality to the vocal writing, even as the individual lines disperse to create lush harmonies the likes of which no Renaissance composer could have conceived; in doing so, Lauridsen artfully combines traditional and contemporary writing in a sound that is at once unique, novel, and yet familiar.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus

If Lux Aeterna is a five-movement work performed without pause, there is no trouble distinguishing the start of the fourth movement from the end of the third - and there is a de facto pause with a total change in scoring, from choir only (3rd movement) to instruments only (start of the 4th); with a change in dynamics from piano to mezzo forte, and from a long-sustained D major chord (with added 9th) to exuberant movement (at the start of the 4th). It is "spirited", with the arrival of the Holy Spirit (Sancte Spiritus). The six vocal parts at the end of the 3rd movement (divided soprano and basses) merge into rhythmic and pitch unison at their entrance in measure 5, and continue for some time. With the quicker tempo and triple meter, and with little use of melismas, this longest of texts in the work is developed and finished the quickest.

Agnus Dei - Lux Aeterna

The fifth movement elides gracefully with the preceding movement, and is distinguished by the sudden change in text to "Agnus Dei..." Here, Lauridsen first consumes the "Agnus Dei" text before reprising that of the Introit, causing the text and music to come full circle.