The Best Composer You've Never Heard Of
A review of Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen published in the Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2012
By TERRY TEACHOUT
It's been a long time since an American classical composer became famous, much less popular. Philip Glass was probably the last one whose name would be passably well known to the public at large, and even Mr. Glass isn't nearly as famous as, say, Aaron Copland. That says a lot about the marginal place of high culture in America—none of it good.
So who ought to be famous? Or, to put it another way, who's writing classical music these days that's accessible enough to satisfy lay listeners, yet serious enough to impress trained musicians?
Morten Lauridsen, that's who.
Don't be surprised if Mr. Lauridsen's name is unfamiliar to you. If you sing in a choir or go out of your way to listen to new choral music, there's a better-than-even chance that you'll have heard of him. If not, not. Though Mr. Lauridsen's music is more widely performed than that of any other contemporary choral composer, he doesn't get talked about on television or written about in magazines, and highbrow music critics typically ignore his premieres. Yet he has no shortage of ardent fans, one of whom, the poet Dana Gioia, describes him as "one of the few living composers whom I would call great."
Mr. Gioia, the past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks these words of praise in a film documentary called "Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen," which will receive its premiere on Feb. 7 in Palm Springs, Calif., followed by screenings in Cincinnati, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and other locations. (For more information about screenings and related public events, go to www.songwithoutborders.net.) The film, directed by Michael Stillwater, is a heartening rarity, a thoroughly intelligent classical-music program that strikes an appropriate balance between words and music. Most of the talking is done by Mr. Lauridsen himself and all of it is to the point, but plenty of time is devoted to the music that is the true point of “Shining Night,” and by film’s end you’ll know what it sounds like and whether you want to hear more of it—as I expect you will.
The 68-year-old composer divides his time between Los Angeles, where he teaches composition at the University of Southern California, and a tiny island off the coast of Washington, where he lives in a renovated general store that overlooks Puget Sound. A man of meditative temperament who trea-sures “serenity and silence,” he must find Waldron Island inspiringly quiet, since so many of his major pieces were written there. His best-known music is for chorus, and his most moving compositions, “O Magnum Mysterium” (1994) and “Lux Aeterna” (1997), are sacred choral works that give voice to the unassuming spirituality that is evident throughout “Shining Night.”
Says Mr. Lauridsen: “There are too many things out there that are away from goodness. We need to focus on those things that ennoble us, that enrich us.” The musical language in which he embodies this simple belief is conservative in the best and most creative sense of the word. His sacred music is unabashedly, even fearlessly tonal, and his chiming harmonies serve as underpinning for gently sway-ing melodic lines that leave no doubt of his love for medieval plainchant. Nothing about his music is “experimental”: It is direct, heartfelt and as sweetly austere as the luminous sound of church bells at night.
Though Mr. Lauridsen is a deeply serious artist, it’s evident from watching “Shining Night” that there’s nothing stuffy about him. He used to play trumpet in dance bands, and he still loves pop music, from Cole Porter and Miles Davis to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. What’s more, he believes no less deeply in writing music that is not just for musicians, but for everybody. Of “Lux Aeterna,” he says that “I didn’t want to write an elitist piece that only the very best choirs in the world could perform—I wanted to write a piece that would be within reach of many people, many performers. It’s a piece with a message, and I didn’t want to complicate that message with complicated musical language.”
Much of Mr. Lauridsen’s music, including “Lux Aeterna” and “O Magnum Mysterium,” has been recorded by Paul Salamunovich and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the artists who gave the first performances of some of his greatest works. Come March 30, you’ll also be able to order a DVD of “Shining Night” directly from www.songwithoutborders.net. As of this writing, though, the film has yet to be scheduled for broadcast anywhere in America. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that it has something to do with the fact that Mr. Lauridsen is neither an edgy avant-gardist nor a pop-cul-ture panderer. He hasn’t appeared on reality TV and his life, so far as I know, is devoid of scandal. All he does is compose radiantly beautiful music and lead what appears to be a wholly satisfying life, and these days that’s not quite enough to make you a household name.
Time was when PBS would have aired “Shining Night” in a heartbeat. Why not now?
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Friday. He is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Write to him at email@example.com.