Guest Columnist 'Shining Night:' a portrait of composer Morten Lauridsen

One of the privileges of writing this column is that I occasionally get to meet the composers of the music I review. I had a meeting this past year with a musician with whom I have been in correspondence for some time. Morten Lauridsen, the most frequently performed American choral composer, came to Washington, D.C. for the local premiere of the documentary film that Michael Stillwater made about him, titled “Shining Night.” I was delighted when Lauridsen asked me to sit with him during the showing. What I saw – and heard – left me deeply moved.

I already knew that Lauridsen was articulate because I had interviewed him by phone several years ago about the stunningly beautiful Hyperion CD of his “Lux Aeterna” and other choral works. When he wrote this piece in 1997, Lauridsen was facing his mother’s impending death. He told me, “I purposely chose those texts that had the recurring symbol of light.” “Lux Aeterna” is not a liturgical work, strictly speaking, but it is the sacred in sound because beauty of this sort is sacramental. In style, Lauridsen was inspired by Renaissance master Josquin des Pres. He not only draws upon Renaissance forms, he remains true to them, albeit with some modern harmonies. “I did try to create a very beautiful piece,” he said. “We try to get to that point beyond words.”

Also on this CD is an exquisitely beautiful and moving “Ave Maria.” I have seldom encountered anything so suffused with love for Mary. When I asked Lauridsen, a Protestant, about this, he responded, “I don’t have to belong to the Catholic Church to be in love with Mary.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Lauridsen stated something else that I cherish. He explained what he was trying to achieve in his sublime choral work, “O Magnum Mysterium,” also contained on the Hyperion CD. “In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary,” he said, “I sought to impart … 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.” As St. Augustine said, only the lover sings such songs. If you want to hear what St. Augustine meant, you might also listen to this music.

You also might – no, must – see “Shining Night.” At the Washington premiere, I also had the pleasure of meeting the filmmaker, Michael Stillwater. In every great work of art, there is a stillness at its center. Stillwater captures this in the breathtaking natural beauty of the Northwest, where Lauridsen keeps a home on Waldron Island, and in Lauridsen’s music, and shows us the relationship between the two. Lauridsen says, “Life is a mystery. There is something bigger than us out there. And how do we tap into that? You go down deep, and this island especially provides me the opportunity to get there.” The marvel of Stillwater’s film is that he lets us take this journey with Lauridsen.

Lauridsen is an articulate, but not loquacious man. When he has nothing to say, he remains silent. Stillwater’s camera does not shy away from this. It remains still with him. It is not an empty stillness. The silence is as expressive as the speech. There are lovely moments of introspection and peace captured here. There are also wonderful scenes away from Waldron of the music being performed by various groups here and in Europe.

After the premiere, Stillwater asked me if we could get together and discuss Morten’s music. He came to my home with his camera. We walked into the forest across the street and, for a supplement to the documentary, he asked me to comment on film about Lauridsen’s work. I felt this was a real privilege to serve the beauty I had seen and heard. Here is what I said, ex tempore (though I was more or less repeating in the forest what I had just said in my living room – Stillwater preferred a more natural setting for my comments):

Morten Lauridsen as a composer is aiming at the highest goal of art, which is to make the transcendent perceptible. That is communicated so movingly in his music, and one immediately senses a stillness in the man. One already knows the stillness from his music and, in Michael Stillwater’s extraordinary film, that stillness is exquisitely captured in the beauty of the surroundings of his music and in the man himself. His music is worthy of the preceding silence because it knows that the silence is not a form of emptiness, but that it is gestational. It’s full. And when one is immersed in it, you create basically the sound of that silence. That is when music is at its most beautiful, and when it touches upon the permanent things, when it touches upon eternity, and that is what he has achieved in his remarkable music.

There is another feature about his music. It deals with profound loss, and we know from what he himself has said that “Lux Aeterna” was written as his mother was dying. Now, what Morten has been able to do is not simply experience loss as a terrible, terrible emptiness. He puts it in context of the meaning of the loss – that life, though it passes, is redeemable: that, in fact, it finally isn’t a loss. And that is why there is a trail in his music, both in the forms and the languages he employs, going back to Renaissance and medieval music that is traditional, but also with some modern harmonies. So nothing is lost in his music itself, which is, in part, about the recovery from loss and what the true meaning of the loss is in that context of redemption. So this is also music very expressive of a very profound and deep faith. I don’t think he could touch upon eternity in the way he does, I don’t think he could make the transcendent perceptible in the way he does, without that ground of faith in him. And it speaks to people, not in any sectarian way, though he is using some Latin texts – it just goes right to the soul.

Lauridsen, his music, and Stillwater’s film remind me of Igor Stravinsky’s remark that “the stained glass artist of Chartres had few colors, and the stained glass artists of today have hundreds of colors, but no Chartres. Not enlarged resources then, but men and what they believe.” Of course you need skill as a composer and a filmmaker (though, startlingly, given its level of accomplishment, this is Stillwater’s first film). You need to master your craft, but what you believe is decisive. Who would imagine that in the Los Angeles of today, where Lauridsen teaches, someone would have the faith to paint in the colors of Chartres, or that an American filmmaker would have sensitivity to capture those colors on film? As Lauridsen, says, “There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us.”

If you are open to this kind of beauty, here it is.

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