On February 19, 2018, I interviewed Morten Lauridsen at his cottage in the Hollywood Hills. I had intended that our focus for that conversation would be primarily on his choral cycle Les Chansons des Roses (1993), which I was going to write about next. However, on the night before at my home and then in the car the next day as I drove to the composer’s home, I listened to a CD, which included not only the Rose Songs, but also a triptych of Morten Lauridsen’s early psalm settings; each time I listened to the CD, my ear was drawn to the quiet beauty and power of his anthem I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes (1970), a setting of Psalm 121. In the midst of our interview, I asked him some impromptu questions about that work. Although we had discussed it once before in August 2016, I was intrigued by what I had heard when I listened to the CD. We subsequently discussed the piece in portions of five other interviews over the next few years. However, at the time, my intention was still to proceed with the Rose Songs.
But as the weeks of the spring semester went by, a curious thing happened repeatedly. I had placed the score on my writing desk at home, to remind myself to put it away in my music cabinet downstairs. Student papers, notes, and ephemera from the semester piled up on my desk, but for whatever reason, the score of I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes kept making its way back to the top, and each time that occurred, I would look through it briefly again with fascination, and then tuck it back among the pile of papers, admonishing myself to secure it in the music cabinet when I next had a chance. Finally, in late May 2018, when I was finishing grades for the spring semester, the score resurfaced on my writing desk yet again. I looked at it, shook my head in frustration, and thought silently to myself, “I really now need to put it away,” especially so that it would not get lost in the inevitable end-of-the-semester paper shuffle. However, just as I started to get up from my desk to take the score downstairs, I stopped myself and said out loud in an insistent and irritated voice directed at my own housekeeping decorum, “But I don’t want to put it away!”
My loud voice startled me, but above all, the very moment I said those words, I heard the opening of the score in my mind, with the paired voices singing the medieval motive that I found so compelling. There was no question at all what I needed to do: I knew that I had to write about this anthem next. In July 2019, I delivered a lecture on the anthem at “Religion in American Life,” an interdisciplinary conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
That early version evolved into an important part of a draft of a book chapter I wrote on Morten Lauridsen’s childhood and young adulthood. I then created the shorter article from the polished draft of that longer chapter. Below is a .pdf file of the published article, which just appeared as a feature in the September 2022 number of the Choral Journal.
There are two fine recordings of this anthem, one of which is available to listen to online. Here is a link to the superb version by Matthew Culloton and the Singers (Minneapolis/St. Paul); I especially like the interpretation of the line, “nor the moon by night.” Matthew Culloton and his group got it exactly right in painting the evocative beauty of these words from Psalm 121, v. 6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyUMyHAcH0Y
See my 2018 article on O Magnum Mysterium. https://timelessmusicandpoetry.org/project-detail-with-description/