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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

O Magnum Mysterium (long setting) (1992)
Text Writer
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Chorus a cappella / Chorus plus 1 instrument
Year Composed
5 Minutes
SATB chorus a cappella

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Programme Note
John Harbison O Magnum Mysterium (long setting) (1992)
Composer Note:

Magnum Mysterium, is a series of meditations on the mystery of the incarnation. It was commissioned by the Saturday Evening Brass, and introduced by them in January 1989.

The piece is related in spirit and intent to my choral cantata The Flight Into Egypt. Both pieces explore unfathomable elements in the Christmas story. I thought especially of the strange glowing light which isolates the Holy Family from a dark and shadowy surrounding world in Tintoretto’s frescoes in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice.

The first movement begins with a calm and sonorous chordal statement which leads to trancelike, floating melismas in the trumpets. Anticipation of the birth is mixed with intimations of darker events.

The second movement is both a lullaby for the Christchild and a pastorale for the shepherds. It is important to remember the link between the Holy Family, for whom there was no room at the inn, and who are left to survive among the animals of the stable, and the nomadic shepherds, who live exposed to the elements.

The third movement is an antiphon, in which the song of the angels peals from hillside to cliff. It is essential to recall how frightening this apparition of the supernatural was to the shepherds. In our times the arrival of a spaceship is anticipated with similar consternation and hope. I tried to express the angels as primary energy. They fade away only to regroup with greater insistence finally receding into the distance leaving behind a new resolution and tranquility.

The final section begins with chords which are a continuing resonance o the angel’s proclamation. But they are replaced by responses to other elements — especially Mary’s surprising quietude. Amid all the celebration she draws back, into her privacy and her secrets, into her foreknowledge, into her sense of the transcendence of her role.

— John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Emmanuel Music
    Craig Smith
    Koch International:
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