O Magnum Mysterium (2015-2016)

SSAATB Chorus (with some divisi in Bass)

Written in response to the November 13, 2015 Parisian terrorist attacks and dedicated to the transcendence of peace in our world. 

World Premiere: December 18, 2016 for the South Bend Chamber Singers "Christmas at Loretto" concert. 

Text: 

Latin: 

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
Alleluia!

English: 

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

Program Notes:

O Magnum Mysterium is a Latin text from the Matins of Christmas that tells of the mystery of the birth of Christ, one of the greatest celebrations in Christian tradition. According to Christian theology, the Virgin Mary miraculously conceives the Son of God, fulfilling God’s promise to send a savior to the earth to bring us into eternal life. Thus the text venerates both the sacred mystery of the birth of Christ and the humble courage of the Blessed Virgin Mary to say “yes” to God. While my Catholic upbringing exposed me to the meaning of this great mystery, I approached this text not necessarily just from a Catholic perspective, but from a more global perspective, a perspective that can be shared and appreciated by all people regardless of creed, race, background, etc. Essentially, O Magnum Mysterium rejoices in the coming of peace to our troubled world, a universal hope that inspires humanity to come together in solidarity in response to the challenges that we face. 

The Parisian terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015 affected me in a powerful way. While I do not know anyone directly impacted by these events, I suddenly felt a strong internal sense of sympathy for all those affected by violence not just in Paris, but throughout the world. My initial response was to write a piece of music in honor of those affected by acts of terrorism, a piece more concerned with mourning. But the first text I thought of was O Magnum Mysterium, and with more reflection on the text, I came to realize that this text is not about mourning, but about hope. Instead of finding a text more suited to the idea of mourning, I changed direction and decided to focus on hope. I believe that the piece needs to be centered around a message of hoping for a better future rather than mourning a tragic past. 

This work was written in part to create an environment for meditative reflection. It opens with the first line of text, “O magnum mysterium,” in a section marked “Ethereal, with openness.” I was inspired by the text- painting techniques of High Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, as he incorporated abundant usage of text-painting in his own setting of O Magnum Mysterium. For instance, at measure 16 of my work, the choir drops to a lower register, with added emphasis on “magnum.” The word “mysterium” is then sung twice, the second time with an unexpected harmonic shift from E-flat tonality to C-flat major/A-flat minor, so as to make the music sound mysterious on the word that means “mystery.” Another instance of text painting is in the lines “jacentem in praesepio,” which translates to “lying in a manger.” I allow this section to come to a calm resting point, fading into silence, reflecting the image of the baby Jesus sleeping peacefully in a manger. With the words “Dominum Christum,” I open the music into a wide and expansive atmosphere, as these words (which mean “Christ the Lord”) are at the center of the entire text. I was also inspired by modern choral composers Eric Whitacre, Paul Mealor, and Morten Lauridsen to use strong dissonances and cluster chords, techniques these composers have all featured in their works. The piece ends quietly, just as it started, so as to ease the listener out of contemplation and back into reality. 

J.W.G. II