A recent Toronto choral event, the Shining Night Festival in honour of a visit by, and dedicated to the works of Morten Lauridsen, brought to mind an overused, but always intriguing concept – that of Zeitgeist. The events of the tortured 20th century have made it comparatively rare for North American English to welcome Germanic expressions into mainstream parlance. But Zeitgeist, a term describing a generally-held feeling in society based on a specific time at some point bucked the trend and made the cut. And I am not alone in the media world (as a self-styled metatheorist) to seek higher, less obvious meaning found in this invisible backdrop to events, trends and ideas.
One of the more immediately identifiable composers by virtue of a characteristic harmony, textual and melodic sense spanning much of his work, Lauridsen is something of a choral ‘brand’ – and one audible in his music, not simply marketed or personified to him as an individual. To use a bit of technical jargon, his fondness for first-inversion chords, disjunct melody based on dissonant notes approached by leap, added-note compound and yet strictly tonal harmony and a kind of free-nonprogrammatic approach to text and image makes anyone exposed to even just a few works instantly suspect upon hearing another.
Morten Lauridsen has had a long, productive and well-positioned career as a composer of choral music, and contributed much beauty to concerts and church services – on purely musical grounds his many accolades and awards are well-deserved. His choral works are performed and recorded widely throughout the world, and are omnipresent on the US choral scene. But there was more than an easily-recogniseable product and a distinguished reputation at work in the success of the composer’s first-ever visit to Toronto, and perhaps the most simple way to state it is that his music is beautiful, and it seems to matter.
If a certain Zeitgeist might have especially motivated Lauridsen’s welcome to Toronto and the large audiences encouraged by enthusiastic choristers and professionals, it might just be our collective hunger for what matters. If we must live under the shadow of economic uncertainty, pandemic, war, terrorism, political farce and gridlock, we want to be pointed to the light, as in the collection of sacred Latin texts of Lux aeterna. We want to heal from the loss of innocents, be they in Iraq/Syria, West Africa, or in the silent cribs of our children in upstairs bedrooms, as in Dana Gioia’s Prayer. We want to look into the strange emptiness of darkness and time and see healing beauty, as in James Agee’s Sure on this Shining Night.
Morten Lauridsen begins every composition class he teaches at the University of Southern California with poetry, and while never conceding to explicit word painting he doesn’t ‘set’ texts… he venerates them, both in the clear reverence in which he holds them, and in the characteristic, crafty and often caressing music with which he enfolds them. He convinces us first (as he did in sessions with students of our Choral Programs at the University of Toronto, and with the public in encounters at the main Festival Day at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church) that text matters deeply to him, and then uses beautiful music to prove that it can matter to us.