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  • Graham Abbott

O Magnum Mysterium

Today I'm going to share with you some music from the Christian tradition which is mostly calm and meditative. It was written to celebrate one particular aspect of the Christmas story, that the Saviour should be born in a stable. The contrast between the divine nature of the Son of God and his humble incarnation in the stable at Bethlehem has been expressed by Catholic composers in many ways, but the Christmas responsory O magnum mysterium is one of the simplest and most beautiful. This is a Gregorian chant setting. [listen]


There are different Latin versions of the O magnum mysterium text but the English translation of the one usually set to music begins:


O great and wonderful sacrament, that beasts should see the birth of the Lord, lying in a stable. O blessed Virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear Christ our Lord.


Various endings are often appended, such as parts of the Ave Maria or an Alleluia. Thus the text combines an expression of wonder at the intervention of God into human affairs with homage to the Virgin Mary


Giotto: The Nativity (1305)

O magnum mysterium has been set to music by composers from the Renaissance to recent times, and it is always set in a way which enhances the devotional nature of the text. The idea of the miraculous has inspired artistic endeavour of all sorts, but as I hope this survey illustrates, music can be a powerful means of not only expressing the miraculous, but of creating feelings of devotion in the listener.


The Netherlandish composer Jacob Clemens non Papa lived during the first half of the 16th century and he was a skilled and prolific composer of sacred music His setting of O magnum mysterium is scored for voices in six parts and was published in 1555, about the time of his death. A mood of radiant wonder permeates the music, and the first part of the settings ends with the word "noe", a Latin version of the Christmas acclamation "noel". [listen]


Not long after this was published, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina published his early setting of the O magnum mysterium. Like Clemens's setting, Palestrina's is in six parts and radiates a devotional warmth. [listen]


Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

Palestrina's setting of O magnum mysterium is not as well known as two others from the late Renaissance, those of Tomás Luis de Victoria and William Byrd. Victoria's setting was published in 1572, only three years after Palestrina's, but the result is totally different. Using only four parts, the Spanish composer creates a darker, more austere vision of awe. [listen]


Clemens, Palestrina and Victoria all lived in the Catholic world. In England, William Byrd lived as a known Catholic under Elizabeth when all Catholics were regarded with suspicion. Byrd lived well into the reign of James I and his Catholic church music is coloured by the need to practise the rituals of the faith clandestinely. Indeed, even in setting happier texts, Byrd's Catholic church music is darker and more serious. His O magnum mysterium was published in 1607. [listen]


William Byrd

The purity of the Renaissance masters was sometimes taken up by composers of later periods when setting O magnum mysterium to music. A good example is the 1992 setting by the American composer John Harbison. [listen]


John Harbison

Protestant composers have largely avoided the O magnum mysterium (in whatever translation), probably because of the emphasis placed in the text on devotion to the Virgin. This sort of devotional style has tended to be more in line with Catholic ritual, especially at Christmas. However devotional moods connected with the Incarnation of Christ have been struck by Protestant composers when setting other texts.


The dialogus (or "dialogue") was a popular form of musical setting which dated back to the middle ages. A conversational piece involving two characters from a sacred story was an effective way of teaching in an age when the general populace was largely illiterate. In later periods the dialogus remained popular, in both Catholic and Protestant contexts.


This is part of a dialogus by the German Lutheran composer Heinrich Schütz, published in 1639. It tells the story of the annunciation, in which an Angel appears to the Virgin to tells her that she will bear the Son of God. The wonder is simple yet affecting when she sings, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word". [listen]


Heinrich Schütz

The great contribution of the Lutheran church to Christian music - apart from the life's work of JS Bach! - was the chorale, the Lutheran hymn that was part of every good Lutheran's life from the cradle to the grave. The Lutheran chorale equivalent of O magnum mysterium was the Christmas hymn Vom Himmel hoch, the melody of which was written by Luther himself. This elaborate setting for Christmas by Michael Praetorius was published in the early 17th century and provided plenty of opportunity for the congregation to join in lustily. [listen]


Michael Praetorius

The great Italian master Giovanni Gabrieli died in 1612, around the time this music of Praetorius's was published. To indulge in his polychoral works, designed for the fabulous acoustics of St Mark's in Venice, is one of music's great sensuous experiences. Gabrieli's setting of O magnum mysterium was, like those of Palestrina and Victoria, written early in his career. It's scored for two four-part choirs. [listen]


Boticelli: The Mystical Nativity (1501)

In the 20th century a number of composers have been attracted to O magnum mysterium, whether practising Catholics or not. Someone who renewed his Catholic faith in 1930s was the French composer Francis Poulenc, and the religious works which grew out of this are masterpieces. Among them are the four Christmas motets, written in 1951-52, one of which is a setting of O magnum mysterium. The intense, searching harmonies with which Poulenc paints the mystery of the incarnation invoke for me the spirit of Victoria's setting which we heard earlier. [listen]


The evocation of mystery and wonder in music, and the fact that music can create feelings of wonder and mystery in the listener, is one of music's own great mysteries. So much of it is cultural, of course, and yet there are sounds which seem to transcend culture and create spasms of wonder in us, regardless of our religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds.


Morten Lauridsen

In terms of contemporary devotional music, and especially contemporary American music, there is right now only one composer I could choose to end this program. Morten Lauridsen was born in 1943 and he is one of the most regularly-performed composers of American choral music in the world. His large output of vocal music manages to be touching and mystical while avoiding the pitfalls of severe minimalism. Even more than this, he is a composer with a real technique, and not some simplistic new-age composer who writes according to formulas and shallow "effects". Lauridsen's setting of O magnum mysterium was composed in 1994 and it’s probably his most famous work. It’s the best way I know to end a survey such as this. It perfectly combines a sense of wonder at the Incarnation with a mother's natural love for her newborn son. As far as the music itself is concerned, to my mind, this is what tonality is for. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2010.

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