By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
For choral singers and choral music fans, few — if any —
people have been more significant in the past quarter-century than Morten
Lauridsen. Angeles Chorale will pay tribute to the Los Angeles-based composer
Sunday evening at 5 p.m. with a reception, dinner and concert at Town and Gown
on the campus of the University of Southern California.
Members of the Pasadena-based Chorale will sing Lauridsen’s
music and there will be a screening of the first two chapters of Shining Night, a documentary by Michael
Stillwater released earlier this year about the man who received the National
Medal of the Arts in 2007 “for his composition of radiant choral works
combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled
audiences worldwide.” KUSC’s Kimberlea Daggy will emcee the event.
The location is appropriate because Lauridsen, now age 69,
is a USC graduate and for more than 30 years has been on the faculty of the USC
Thornton School of Music, where he chaired the composition department from
1990-2002 and is now Distinguished Professor of Composition.
Lauridsen was born in Washington and raised in Portland,
Ore. After attending Whitworth College for two years, he came to USC in 1963
(his classmates included Michael Tilson Thomas, now music director of the San
Although Lauridsen grew up loving the music of Jerome Kern,
Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, he didn’t begin composing
until he came to USC. “I came down here with a clean slate,” he recalls. “I had
never written a note of music but Halsey Stevens let me in to a class by
saying, ‘Let’s try it for a semester and see what you can do.’ He gave me a
great opportunity and I ran with it.” Lauridsen later repaid that favor by
editing several of Stevens’ pieces when Stevens, by then stricken with
Parkinson’s Disease, was too ill to finish the works.
Among Lauridsen’s first jobs was teaching theory to the
master classes of violinist Jascha Heifetz. He sang in the USC Concert Choir
under James Vail, who took his first piece, Psalm
150, on tour with Lauridsen conducting it. After Lauridsen finished his
Master’s degree, he stayed on to teach. “At one time, I was the youngest faculty
member,” he says with a chuckle. “Now I’m among the oldest.”
However, for most singers it’s the music that they remember
whenever the name “Morten Lauridsen” is mentioned. His output includes seven
song cycles, the motet O Magnum Mysterium
and, in particular, Lux Aeterna,
which Lauridsen wrote when he was composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles
Master Chorale (a position he held from 1994-2001). Noted local musicologist
and conductor Nick Strimple calls Lauridsen “the only American composer in
history who can be called a mystic.”
Poetry plays a huge part in Lauridsen’s life. He begins
every class at USC with a poem and many of his works are based on texts of
poets including James Agee, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert
Graves and Federico Garcia Lorca.
One work not based on poetry was Lux Aeterna, which was premiered 15 years ago tomorrow. The
Requiem-like piece touched a wellspring in listeners throughout the world from
the time it appeared and its popularity hasn’t diminished.
“This is a very personal piece,” says Lauridsen, “and there
were two strong impulses to my writing the work. My mother was on her deathbed
at the time, and I was writing the piece as a meditation on light triumphing
over darkness. That’s why I wrote an ‘alleluia’ at the end. This isn’t a dark
piece. It’s a celebration.”
The second reason was the commission from the Los Angeles
Master Chorale. “I wrote Lux Aeterna
specifically for Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale,” relates
Lauridsen. The work’s ancient lyrics and Gregorian chant-inspired music were a
perfect fit for Salamunovich (an internationally recognized authority on
Gregorian chant) and the Master Chorale. “I told Paul, ‘You’re in every note of
that piece of music,'” remembers Lauridsen. “I had in my mind, especially, the
Chorale’s marvelous alto section and the wonderful sound that Paul got from his
From its premiere, the work has remained extraordinarily
popular throughout the world. “I gave Paul a pitch right down the middle,” says
Lauridsen with a chuckle, “and he belted it out of the park.”
The entire piece and one section in particular, O Nata Lux, have sold millions of
copies. “My publisher told me that there were about three dozen sets orchestral
parts of Lux Aeterna being used
throughout the world during Holy Week this year,” says Lauridsen, and that
doesn’t count the number of performances being sung with organ accompaniment.
Lauridsen wrote the piece with both accompaniments to broaden its
Thousands of people have written Lauridsen to tell him how
much the music has touched their hearts, either through performances or via the
two CDs that have been made. Many of those letters came after the 9-11
That popularity will continue, believes Dana Gioia, who
headed the National Endowment for the Arts when Lauridsen received his National
Medal of the Arts. “He is one of the few composers,” says Gioia, “who I have
conviction will be performed a hundred, two hundred years from now.”
For information about Sunday’s event, call 818/591-1735.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.