Every Advent, I go looking for O Magnum Mysterium online, and every year I find that yet another composer has written his (or her, but so far I think only his) setting to this text (or rather, that their setting is now on YouTube), and then I have the nigh-impossible task of picking just one to write about here.
This year, my new favourite is this dramatic setting by Javier Busto. Who, it turns out, is a contemporary of my parents, and hails from the Basque region. My parents do not hail from the Basque region, which is probably why they do not compose dramatic church music.
I fell in love with the half-whispered section at the beginning, that amazing crescendo at the end, and the liveliness of the performance generally – most other versions online are much more calming and sedate, probably because they are being sung in church, but I think the drama of the music demands more. Also, and this has nothing to do with the music, but how gorgeous are the choir’s outfits? I want to join that choir just so I can wear a skirt like that. And let’s just give three cheers for the delight of having a choir that comes from the Southern Hemisphere!
The lyrics translate to ‘Oh 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!’. Lots of good stuff there, and I can quite see why everyone wants to write their own version of this piece…
A bonus carol for your Christmas Vigil! I love the lyrics to this piece of music – they are perfect for Christmas night, translating “O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that the animals see the Lord born, lying in a manger. Blessed virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Lord Christ. Alleluia!”
The hard part is choosing a setting, because everyone has done one. There’s this gorgeous one by Victoria, or you could try Byrd, straight or with jazz piano, or you could have some spooky Poulenc, or then there’s this one, by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen.
I love the reflectiveness of this setting and its stillness, and the way the alleluias come out of the darkness at the end. For all its modernity, it would be a beautiful thing to hear in an old Roman or Gothic church, with only a brazier for light, as we await the coming of midnight and the lighting of candles to celebrate the holy birth.
OK, I’m up so late that it is officially tomorrow, and time for another Advent window!
This window is purely serendipitous. When I was wandering all over YouTube, trying to find someone – anyone! – who had recorded Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium, I quite accidentally happened upon a version by Poulenc.
I’ve only sung one or two pieces by Poulenc, and that was a very long time ago, but I do like him. He really has a way with harmony – I’m sure I’ve described other composers as lush, but Poulenc takes lush to a whole new level. And I have a certain fondness for Poulenc also because twice in my life I have got myself completely lost in Paris and ended up in front of the house in which he was born (I think – though it may have been the one he lived in as an adult. Or perhaps both – I’m not sure I got lost in the same place both times). So stumbling across Poulenc purely by chance is something of a Catherine tradition.
Poulenc was a 20th century composer (a phrase that fills me with foreboding) and apparently “embraced the Dada movement’s techniques, creating melodies that would have been appropriate for Parisian music halls”. I honestly have no idea what they are talking about when they say that, but perhaps this is because I have only encountered his religious music.
(Hmm… according to the article I’m looking at, “A master of artificial simplicity, [Poulenc] pleases even sophisticated listeners by his bland triadic tonalities, spiced with quickly passing diaphonous discords.” Is it just me, or is that statement really pretentious?)
You can tell I know nothing about this piece by the way I am resorting to other people’s remarks about Poulenc to justify its inclusion. But I’m not going to justify it any further, because it’s just plain gorgeous and just a little bit spooky and entirely worth listening to even by unsophisticated listeners such as myself.
And while we’re having serendipitous Poulenc, here he is being all Christmassy with shepherds and such