Morten Lauridsen | Lux Aeterna

It was a natural thing for me to blend poetry and the human voice, which is the most wonderful and personal of all musical instruments. I ended up writing a great deal of choral music, and haven’t stopped.1

To walk in the evergreen forests and along the waterways of the Pacific Northwest, as Morten Lauridsen loves to do, is to experience infinite variations of light. Clouds of gray loom in the skies, and deft rays of sunlight filter through the trees and touch on water with an ever-changing chiaroscuro effect. Walking here with poetry in his mind and music in his heart, Lauridsen finds inspiration for his compositions, luminous with inner radiance.

Lauridsen composed the requiem Lux Aeterna in 1997, the year his mother died. She was the “muse” who introduced him to music, playing swing jazz and singing to him as a toddler. She also taught him to play the piano. The consolation for grief offered by Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna is often compared to that of Fauré’s Requiem and Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, both works inspired by the deaths of the composers’ mothers. These works also have in common a deceptive simplicity, yet their capacity to touch the listener reveals mastery at expressing through music the depth of human emotion.

The five movements of Lux Aeterna are based on various references to light from sacred Latin texts: perpetual light, light risen in the darkness, Redeemer-born light from light, light of the Holy Spirit, light of hearts, most blessed light, eternal light — all supporting an earthbound spirit seeking not only mercy, understanding, and consolation but also renewal. “This is music that has absorbed the wondrous from our century. [Its] unequivocal generosity of spirit, its unfussy ecstatic tone comes not from the past or rejection of the new but from an openness to modern music.”2

In expressing a human journey to reclaim intimacy with the inner life, Lauridsen seamlessly integrates the musical essence of ancient modes, Renaissance polyphony, Romanticism, and modern dissonance. This timelessness can bring home to the listener the recognition of his or her own mortal journey. Perhaps this embracing effect is a reason that Lux Aeterna is widely known to bring listeners to tears.

Lauridsen uses the beginning and ending of the traditional Requiem Mass to open and close Lux Aeterna. The second movement, “In Te, Domine, Speravi” (Lord, I have hoped in you), opens with a chant from the hymn “Herliebster Jesu” (Dearest Jesus) published in a 1677 songbook, addressed to the trusted Lord, to whom is directed the gentle plea for mercy.

The third movement, “O Nata Lux” (Oh light born [from light]) is the centerpiece from which all of the other references to light seem to emanate. The tempo changes are beautifully placed to linger on the interplay of voice parts in the style of Renaissance polyphony, creating a showpiece of a cappella choral singing.

In “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit), voices soar to high notes on both the words lucis (light) and fletu (grief). This pairing serves as a bridge that brings together all who share the experience of grief. Unison singing at the phrase O lux beatissima (O most blessed light) encourages our hearts with the humble insight necessary to petition on behalf of those we have lost.

The final movement, “Agnus Dei – Lux Aeterna” (Lamb of God, Eternal Light), begins with a long, whispered prayer on behalf of the dead, swells into full voice on the phrase lux aeterna, and ends with an optimistic Alleluia.

The 1998 recording of Lux Aeterna by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to whom the work is dedicated, received a Grammy nomination — a deserved tribute to the exquisitely matched union of Lauridsen’s lush music with sacred texts, which serves as balm to our world-weary mortality.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Lauridsen speaking of his undergraduate days, quoted in an undated biographical sketch at http://www.peermusic.com/peermusic/index.cfm/artist-writer/artist-details/?artist_id=142
  2. “Finding Joy in Themes of Loss,” by music critic Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, October 26, 1999.