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Morten Lauridsen is currently America’s most performed choral composer. His works feature a blend of medieval, renaissance and contemporary techniques. He relies upon Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony along with a variety of modern approaches to harmonic structure, sometimes even using aleatoric techniques. His sheet music is on the best-seller’s list and his works have been recorded on hundreds of albums.
Lauridsen was born in Washington state in the Pacific-Northwest of the United States. His mother was an enthusiastic musician and encouraged her son to pursue his musical interests. After beginning his studies at Whitman College in his home state, Lauridsen transferred to the University of California (USC) after a short time. At USC, Lauridsen received a broad musical education and had the opportunity to study with Harold Owen, Robert Linn, Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens.
After receiving his doctoral degree, Lauridsen was appointed to the music faculty at USC, where he later became Chair of the UCS Composition department (1990-2002) and founded the Advanced Studies Program in Film Scoring; he now holds the Distinguished Professor of Music position. Lauridsen has been a member of the USSC Thornton School of Music faculty for more than 40 years.
As a guest lecturer and composer, Lauridsen has held residencies at more than 70 universities. He also devoted a number of years to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, from 1994 to 2001, as the composer-in-residence.
Lauridsen is most widely known for his vocal music, though he has also written numerous instrumental works. His music is often featured in live concerts and in recordings, of which there are already more than 200. Five recordings of Lauridsen’s music have also received nominations for a Grammy Award. His music appears on a variety of labels, including Genuin, BIS, K&K Verslagsanstalt, Delos and Signum Records.
Lauridsen’s vocal music includes eight cycles and two collections: Les Chansons des Roses(1993), Mid-Winter Songs (1980), A Winter Come (1979), A Backyard Universe, Madrigali: Six "FireSongs" on Italian Renaissance Poems (1987), Nocturnes(2005), Cuatro Canciones sobre Poesias de Federico Garcia Lorca (1983), Four Madrigals on Renaissance Texts, Five Songs on American Poems and Lux Aeterna(1997). These works are based on the texts of Rilke, Graves, Moss, Neruda, Agee, Lorca, Witt and Gioia.
In addition, Lauridsen has composed a variety of a cappella motets, the most popular of which areO Magnum Mysterium, Ave Maria, O Nata Lux, Ubi Caritas et Amorand Ave Dulcissima Maria.
Lauridsen has composed in both the sacred and secular vocal genres. For all of his vocal works, the style is very much determined by a set of factors including subject matter, language, style, structure and historical era. When composing sacred Latin settings, Lauridsen often makes references to Gregorian chant in addition to Medieval and Renaissance practices. He is able to blend these old styles with his own musical language, resulting in a fresh a new sound palette. This characteristic of his sacred music led musicologist and conductor Nick Strimble to describe Lauridsen as ‘the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, [whose] probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered.
While some pieces are very tonal, such as the Lux Aeterna and many of the motets, others offer a much more contemporary sound, with dense chromaticism and atonality, such as in the Madrigali andCuatro Canciones. Despite the harmonic language used, Lauridsen always composes in a lyrical manner with clear melodic and harmonic elements.
While Lauridsen does not consider himself a composer of anthems for the church, a number of his works have been used for this purpose, especially the motetO Magnum Mysterium. Other composers of 20th-century American anthems to religious, spiritual or moral texts include Leonard Bernstein, Norman Dello Joio, Howard Hanson, Alan Hovhaness, John Harbison and Vincent Persichetti.
Another prominent choral composer, Eric Whitacre, resembles Lauridsen in his manner of evading the strict form of the anthem. Despite this, Whitacre’sLux Aurumque(2000) and ‘I thank you God for most this amazing day’ from Three Songs of Faith(2009) are also used as anthems. Composers Kinley Lange, Gwyneth Walker and Z. Randall Stroope have also been known to compose in this quasi-anthem style.
The success of Lauridsen’s work can be evidenced by sheet music sales. According to his distributer, Theodore Presser, the ‘all-time-best-selling choral octavos’ from the company are works by Lauridsen, namelyO Magnum Mysterium, ‘Dirait-on’ from Les Chansons des Roses, ‘O Nata Lux’ from Lux Aeternaand ‘Sure On This Shining Night’ from Nocturnes.
To comprehend just how tremendous of an accomplishment this is, it is important to understand that Theodore Presser has been in business since 1783. No other pieces in the history of the company (more than 200 years!) have sold as many copies as these three works by Lauridsen.
According to conductor and musicologist Nick Strimble, ‘from 1993 Lauridsen’s music rapidly increased in international popularity, and by century’s end he had eclipsed Randall Thompson as the most frequently performed American choral composer’.
A documentary about the life of Lauridsen was premiered at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, California in 2012. The film, entitledShining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen has won four Best Documentary awards and was described as ‘a heartening rarity’ by Terry Teachout of theWall Street Journal. The film was directed by Michael Stillwater and co-produced for Song Without Borders with Doris Laesser Stillwater. Lauridsen has also provided a book, Waldron Island Reflections, as a companion to the film.
Morten Lauridsen’s list of awards and honours is lengthy and includes numerous grants, prizes and commissions. Most notably, he was named ‘American Choral Master’ in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the next year he received the National Medal of Arts from the President at a ceremony in the White House, ‘for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide’. Lauridsen has been the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates from schools such as Whitman College, Oklahoma State University, Rowan University, Westminster Choir College and King’s College, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Lauridsen currently splits his time between the hectic big city of Los Angeles and his vacation home on a remote island off the coast of Washington State.