Morten Lauridsen: The Way of Light

The compositions of Morten Johannes Lauridsen make up some of the most beloved vocal music of the 20th century. His seven vocal and choral cycles and his series of sacred motets are performed regularly by distinguished soloists and ensembles throughout the world. His works have been recorded on more than a hundred CDs, three of which have received Grammy nominations. A recent performance of his Lux Aeterna at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., garnered the following review from Stephen Brookes in the Washington Post: “It was Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna that stole the show. Built on liturgical texts that all have to do with light, this 1977 work is absolutely radiant – even exalting – with a kind of rapturous joy running through it.” It is no surprise that Lux Aeterna is one of the San Francisco Choral Society’s favorite pieces!

Born in 1943 and a native of the Pacific Northwest, Lauridsen worked as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter and tower lookout before traveling south to study composition with Halsey Stevens, Ingolf Dahl, Robert Linn, and Harold Owen. He was composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1994-2001 and has been a professor of composition at the University of Southern California for more than 30 years. He now divides his time between Los Angeles and his summer cabin on a remote island off the northern coast of Washington state.

In speaking of Lauridsen’s sacred works in his book Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple describes Lauridsen as “the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic. [His] probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered. From 1993 Lauridsen’s music rapidly increased in international popularity, and by century’s end he had eclipsed Randall Thompson as the most frequently performed American choral composer.”

I asked Lauridsen to tell us something about the process he went through in composing Lux Aeterna. His response: “It is a meditation on light, a universal symbol of illumination at all levels – the spiritual, the religious, beauty, understanding, goodness – all that elevates us as human beings. I selected Latin texts with this theme upon receiving the news that my own mother was terminally ill. I found great comfort and solace in composing music based upon these wonderful, deeply moving words. The ‘alleluias’ that close the piece signify both my acceptance of her death and my understanding of the power and meaning of the messages contained in these glorious Latin texts. I hope that, in some way, the Lux Aeterna will also add a measure of joy, richness, and transformation to the lives of both performers and listeners.”

— O’Brien Young, with help from www.mortenlauridsen.com