The Lux Aeterna was commissioned by the Board of Governors of the Los Angeles Music Center, and received its premiere in April of 1997 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia, under their esteemed conductor, Paul Salamunovich. The LAMC is an organization that has championed his work throughout the years, and Morten has said that the piece was composed with the sound of the group in his mind. It is dedicated to them. In his preface to the Lux, Morten writes, “It is my hope that this quiet meditation on Light will enrich and enlighten the lives of both performers and listeners in some way.” As someone deeply affected by the power of this music, and given its popularity among performers and audiences alike, it’s safe to say that Morten’s humble mission was more than accomplished. Morten has also said that the process of composing the Lux helped him to heal during his mother’s final illness.
The Lux sets several Latin liturgical texts selected by Morten to explore the nature of eternal light forming a kind of requiem, but one that doesn’t hew to the usual order of a requiem liturgy. This personal selection of texts seems to me a kind of variation on Brahms’ eschewing the liturgical texts altogether for his Ein Deutches Requiem, and the similarities don’t end there.
Both pieces begin with an instrumental introduction, and the choir makes the first statement of the text a cappella, or without accompaniment. In the Lux, this the choral entrance begins the Introitus from the Latin Requiem, in a first inversion chord (the lowest note of the chord is not the root, but, rather, a third above) with an added second. This chord is what I’ve come to think of as the quintessential Lauridsen chord – several of his pieces include it as a kind of sonic signature. The harmony is also breathtakingly beautiful. After a bar of instrumental interlude, both pieces continue with a longer a cappella exposition. After that section, Morten departs from the Brhamsian model by starting a canon that uses a theme that echoes the Gregorian chant that is one of Paul Salamunovich’s specialties (recall, he was the conductor of the work’s premiere and a dedicatee). This music is developed , and then returns to the original theme, again a cappella, only with the addition of a solo cello line of striking beauty. The text of the movement is a prayer for rest to be granted to the departed, and that light perpetual shine upon them.
The second movement begins attacca, or without a break from the first. In this movement, Morten has said that he is exploring the shadows, and he extracts the text from the Te Deum, a Latin hymn of praise. At the center of this bit of text is the line, “A light has risen in the darkness for the upright.” This movement is the piece’s most dark – there is gentle dissonance and text painting, as well as the use of a statement of cantus firmus (in a parallel to two of the Bach cantatas also sung at this year’s Festival): the melody of Herzliebster Jesu, or “Ah, Holy Jesus, how has thou offended?” This movement also includes echoes of the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, who used similar voice pairings in some of his repertoire. There’s also a canon in inversion towards the end – the women state the theme, and the men repeat it after them, only upside down. The movement concludes with the text:
In thee, O Lord, I have trusted; let me never be confounded.
The orchestra plays a plaintive epilogue that then flows into the next movement, an a cappella motet, O Nata Lux de lumine, “O born light of light.” The music for this movement echoes Morten’s first commission for the LA Master Chorale, his stunningly beautiful O Magnum Mysterium, and the composer has said that he wanted to continue to develop the sound of the O Magnum, with this movement. It begins again with the kind of chord that is his harmonic signature, though voiced slightly differently from the first movement. He uses Renaissance compositional techniques including canon and very consonant harmony that create a kind of quiet intensity that seems paradoxically peaceful. When we began rehearsing this movement Greg asked to imagine the embers of a dying fire – a soft glow of orangish red, but with great warmth and intensity.
After the center movement, the orchestra returns with an exuberant introduction to the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, a Latin hymn to the Holy Spirit. In the center of the movement is the verse:
O Light most blessed, fill the inmost heart of all thy faithful.
The movement is set in three (composers often do this to acknowledge the third member of the Holy Trinity), and is full of great joy and splendor.
The piece concludes with a combination of the Agnus Dei and the Lux Aeterna texts, introduced by an orchestral interlude of exceptional harmonic beauty. It’s first played by the septet of wind instruments, and then is echoed by the strings at the movement’s conclusion. To my ears, this is the refraction of sun on water made sound – the harmonies evolve in unexpected ways that seem simply to sparkle. In another echo of the Brahms, material from the first movement is recapitulated and developed, with the Lux Aeterna text replacing the Requiem aeternum. At the conclusion of that recapitulation, Morten adds an alleluia section of powerful joy, and a resting amen section that, in the words of one of my baritone colleagues, lingers like a beautiful perfume. To me, the ending recalls the luminosity of the sky a few minutes after the sun has set.
I have avoided writing, thus far, about how this piece might make listeners feel, because I can claim absolutely no objectivity about this music. I find it breathtakingly, life-changingly beautiful. In our conversation, Morten mentioned the influence of the setting of his summer home on his compositional voice, and I think the Lux demonstrates that influence readily. The music is suffused with the light of the sun (rising, setting, mid-day), and the sea. A couple years ago, we listened to this music as my wife and I drove down the Outer Banks of North Carolina – it was transfixing to hear this music as we encountered the sun and the sea (if you vacation near water, take a recording along and see exactly what I mean). Greg Funfgeld is excited about the upcoming performances, in part, because we’ll be singing the Lux at about 8:30 pm (it’s second in a program that begins at 8 pm, after Cantata No. 119), just after the sun has set. The stained glass windows will be aglow and the atmosphere of the Packer Memorial Church will be radiant with visual and aural beauty. The piece also carves out a sense of time and place for meditation and reflection. I think the audience and performers have a wonderful mandate from Morten, who said:
As I tell audiences, every single time this piece is done, if you can get to that deep, personal space, it’s almost like a meditation, where you can reflect on those things that are important to you, that bring light in your own life.
I also believe that this piece speaks a profundity that transcends the text alone, and illuminates the text in a way that engages the imagination of the listener. One of the great blessings of making choral music is that there remains enough abstraction to allow the imagination of the listener to fill in several blanks in the aesthetic experience. In Morten’s music, there is a beautiful canvas, but one that is also diaphanous – the text and the music are concrete, but the affect may differ between thoughtful listeners. I find it irresistible – and agree with the poet Dana Gioia, who was the Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts when Morten was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2007 at the White House: Morten’s music will be played and sung hundreds of years from now. How very extraordinarily blessed we will be for the privilege of singing and hearing it in May.
Morten has written about the Lux Aeterna here, on his publisher’s website.