WPR Music Pick: 2 stunning Christmas pieces

Same words, 4 centuries apart

The Birth of the Baby Jesus, Folk Art by Nan Phelps, Oil on Canvas, 1950.

Some of my favorite memories involve singing with others, especially music for the holidays. One of those highlights in college was learning and performing the gorgeous 16th century Christmas motet by Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, “O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery).”

Decades later, I discovered and sang another stunning setting of the same words by the living American composer Morten Lauridsen.

They are equally powerful and moving; I experience them viscerally and have occasionally become so overwhelmed with emotion that I’ve had to lip-synch while singing.

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The two pieces are utterly different in sound and structure, one composed in the flowing renaissance polyphony of the day, and the other full of dissonant chord clusters. Both evoke a powerful sense of awe, wonder and mystery.

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