Wednesday, August 31

O Magnum Mysterium: Why has Christianity declined so much in a land that produces the greatest Christian choirs?

Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose (1633) by Francisco de Zurbarán

Map of declining Christianity in England and Wales*

From the YouTube comment section:
Isaias Ramos Garcia: its a WONDER why are the english the best performers of this castilian composer?

stigekalder: Because of their superior choral tradition. Every kid has sung Messiah at school, and every college has excellent choirs. Nowhere on earth you will find so many great singers than in Cambridge or London!

LewisHamsterHammond: Or Oxford!
The "Castilian" Garcia refers to is Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the greatest composers of Christian music that 16th Century Spain produced -- and, since the resurgence of interest in Victoria in the 20th Century there are some who consider him possibly Spain's greatest composer.

Garcia was commenting on a recording posted at YouTube of Victoria's version of a Christmas liturgical chant titled O Magnum Mysterium (OMM), sung by a British choral group called The Sixteen.  OMM itself experienced a resurgence of interest in the  20th Century with the American composer Morten Lauridsen's version, published in 1994. Since then OMM, and in particular Lauridsen's work, has become a Christmas staple of Christian choirs the world over, with seemingly countless renditions of it published to YouTube.

I learned about OMM from Charles Cameron, who sent me a rendition of Lauridsen's OMM sung by the Westminster Choir at Westminster Cathedral as part of the cathedral's Christmas Mass in 2009. The setting is stunningly beautiful, as the poster at YouTube aptly described it, and beautifully filmed. I confess I was so busy gawking that I had trouble concentrating on the music. And so I climbed aboard YouTube's magic carpet in search of a less distracting setting for the music.

During the course of my journey I learned the story of how Lauridsen came to write his masterpiece; I learned about Tomás Luis de Victoria; and I learned more about Christian liturgical music than I could fully absorb.

I was finally deposited at a completely undistracting video of Lauridsen's OMM sung by the Nordic Chamber Choir. By then my interest in OMM had been piqued, and so I returned to YouTube to search for versions that predated Lauridsen's. That is how I came upon Isaias Ramos Garcia's comment and the responses to it.

My first thought was that the commenters were right; while there are great Christian choirs in other countries, the sheer number of great choirs and choral societies in the U.K. make the British not only wonderful interpreters of Victoria's work but arguably all sacred music. Indeed, Ryuichi Sakamato turned to a British choral society, The Ambrosian Singers, for Acceptance, his composition for the film "Little Buddha," which transcends religious traditions and evokes the majesty of human striving for the sacred.  

My second thought was to wonder how a land that produced such an abundance of exalted renditions of Christian church music could also be a land that has seen a striking decline in Christian church attendance for well over a century.

In an undated article (from the notes, probably published in 2014), the pastor of Twynholm Baptist Church in Fulham, England, Mike Gilbart-Smith, argues that the statistics used to produce the grim prognosis for Christianity in Great Britain are misleading, and that actually evangelical Christianity has not seen a decline. 

But he does allow that the percentage of evangelicals in Great Britain (Wales and England), is quite small. And he admits that his argument is up against statistics that mercilessly point to a great decline in church -- at least High Church -- attendance in Great Britain. A 2016 article by the Guardian states that the "proportion of population who describe themselves as Anglican has halved since 1983."

Gilbart-Smith proffers several possible reasons for the decline, including his droll observation that shopping at malls, a popular alternative to Sunday church attendance, wasn't possible until the Sunday Trading Act of 1994.

The pastor's argument that Christianity is still very much alive and well in Great Britain has been countered by a thunderclap of opinion this year from British publications, including The Spectator and Guardian, which seem quite prepared to read the last rites for Christianity in Great Britain.

* See notes in Gilbart-Smith's article about the above map.

*    *    *
However, I haven't noticed a decline in great performances of Christian music in the country, although if many churches have actually gone out of existence or experience very low attendance, of course this would affect the number of church choirs -- and more to the point, the amount of donations that help keep the choirs going. 

But while I am not the expert on this issue, and with a nod to the learned opinions, I venture a reason for the seeming contradiction between the greatness of British Christian singing and the great decline in British Christianity:

Look at the still-life at the top of this post. What do you see?  If you tell me you see the Virgin Mary and the Mystery of her giving birth to the Christ, either you are already familiar with the painting, made famous in this era by Morton Lauridsen's explanation of how it inspired his version of O Magnum Mysterium.  Or you are steeped in the symbolism of the High Church and/or the use of Christian symbols in art.

I'm sorry but the symbolism is so abstract that those are the only ways to read Mary and the Virgin Birth into a painting of fruit, a flower, and a cup of water, although I'll concede the symbolism could have been understood by well-educated Christians centuries ago in Europe.     

Lauridsen himself did not understand the symbolism of the painting when he first saw it -- a point he does not make clear to readers in his 2009 article for The Wall Street Journal about the painting It's a Still Life That Runs Deepand its role in inspiring his version of OMM.

I understand why he didn't mention the point in the article; he was focused on promoting interest in the painting, which was part of an exhibition being brought to New York. But he did make the point in a filmed account of how he came to compose his version of OMM, which vexingly I can't now find at YouTube even though it was the very first video I came across when I began searching for renditions of OMM. (That will teach me to save every link when I embark on a quest even if I think I won't need it or can easily find it later.)

From his oral account, what happened is that Lauridsen was emotionally overwhelmed as soon as he saw the painting -- and to such extent that it almost sounds as if he went into physical shock. In any case, he then he lost sleep trying to figure out why the painting had such an extraodinary effect on him. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery, which might have its solution in one or more of his past lives.

But the point is that he had to learn about the painting before he understood that it was highly symbolic and that the symbolism was meant by the artist to convey the purity of the Virgin Mary and the mystery of the divine birth. Lauridsen, already an accomplished composer of Christian music, connnected the concepts in the still-life painting with the words of O Magnum Mysterium:
O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that the animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in a manger.
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!
The rest, about how he wove together these themes into a new version of OMM is, as it's said, history. It's also highly technical craft -- so much so that only other accomplished composers, those with detailed knowledge of the craftmanship that goes into choral music for Christian sacred music, can follow his explanation. 

His explanation is almost simple next to the Wikipedia description of Tomás Luis de Victoria's compositions for the church. Yet if one thinks about it, the genesis of all the complexity was simply a bunch of guys singing together in a monastery. As the bunch became larger there had to be ways to work all the different voices into group song that didn't break eardrums. Not as easy as it might sound, and thus, the birth of the craft of the liturgical chant, which led to Ambrosian and Gregorian chants and their offshoots.

All that technique culminated in a glorious art form.

The tradeoff, I think, is that when song as the language of the heart becomes performance art, something of essence is lost. And so, by a great irony, the very glory of British Christian chorale singing just might be a reason why many British drifted from the Church.

*    *    *

Now as to who authored the original O Magnum Mysterium, or whether it simply developed from a group of monks whose names and monastery are lost in time, is an interesting question. Encyclopedia Brittanica doesn't have an entry on OMM; Wikipedia's article is so brief as to be terse:
O Magnum Mysterium is a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas.
Then the Wiki author contents himself with providing the lyrics and a dauntingly long list of "modern"composers who've written versions of OMM -- not all of them necessarily modern given that Victoria's name is on the list. 

But from the following article by the anonymous "markfromireland," who's written extensively on Christian church music for the website Saturday Chorale, the honor of authorship possibly goes to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 2 February 1594), to the extent a single person could be credited:

Palestrina: O magnum mysterium
January 3, 2012

Palestrina’s six-part motet "O magnum mysterium" was published in Rome in 1569 as part of a collection of motets for five, six and seven voices. It’s a six-part motet that Palestrina wrote for Christmas – the Feast of the Nativity and is both a beautiful piece of music and a marvellous example of his skill. In it Palestrina trys, and largely succeeds, in expressing the joy and awe felt by the shepherds as they celebrated Christ’s birth and worshipped the Christ-child as he lay in a manger.

For this motet Palestrina took his text from the first half of the fourth and third Responsories at Matins on Christmas Day. It opens with a slow series of chords that announce the "great mystery and wonderful sacrament" ("O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum") and continues with a series of voices in different combinations before breaking into a chorus in triple time representing the "chorus of angels praising God" ("chorus angelorum collaudantes Dominum"). Palestrina ends the first part of them motet with a series of ‘Alleluias’ in double time.

The second part of the motet reuses much of the material found in the first except that this time the shepherds directly recount what they’ve seen "The newborn we have seen and a chorus of angels praising God" ("natum vidimus et chorus angelorum collaudantes Dominum"). Lyrics and a translation are both below the fold. Enjoy :-)


[audio:|titles=Palestrina- O magnum mysterium]

Click the player above to listen to the motet [visit the website]

Lyrics: O magnum mysterium

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
iacentem in praesepio.
Natum vidimus et chorus angelorum
collaudantes Dominum. Alleluia.
O great mystery and wonderful sacrament,

that beasts should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger.
The new-born we have seen and a chorus
of angels praising God. Alleluia.
Quem vidistis pastores?

Dicite, annunciate nobis quis apparuit?
natum vidimus et chorus angelorum
collaudantes Dominum. Alleluia.
Whom have you seen, shepherds?

Speak, tell us who has appeared?
The newborn we have seen and a chorus
of angels praising God. Alleluia.

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The Music 
O Magnum Mysterium
(pronounced Oh MAHN-yoom mis-STAIR-ee-oom)

I. Four Versions by Martin Lauridsen

Los Angeles Master Chorale
(Lauridsen wrote the work specifically for this choral society 
so it's sung here exactly as he conceived it)

Nordic Chamber Choir

Westminster Cathedral Choir

Kings College Choir

II. Version by Tomás Luis de Victoria
Sung by The Sixteen

III.  Version by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
Sung by (who else?) Kings College Choir
6:22 minutes; rest of tape is blank


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