Morten Lauridsen: Connecting Poetry and Music

I’m Morten Lauridsen, I’m distinguished
Professor of Composition at the Thornton School of Music at the University of
Southern California. I’ve been associated with this University both as a student
and a faculty for now fifty-two years and I’m happy to talk with you today. Poetry is a huge part of my life, I read
it every day, I am nourished by it in so many ways.
Poets inform us, they help us to deal with situations, with the human condition,
with with life and death, and loss and love and beauty. They do it through words,
we musicians are doing it through notes. When I, and I read poetry every single
day, one of my great joys is to prowl bookstores and sometimes I go to the
poetry section and I will begin reading and I’ll go from book to book to book
and look at something and when I find a poem, for which I have a visceral reaction to
it, then I will go out and buy everything I
can by that particular poet, to see if it will allow itself a setting to music, and
I look for the the use of the language, I look for the overall thematic content of
it, and I’m very very much interested in everything else about it;
when it was written, who was written by, and I explored it the
life of the poet deeply, and I’m looking for those themes that that are filled
with symbolism and that also to speak to, to the listener and to the performer. This
is why, I think ,one of the reasons that the Lux Aeterna is done everywhere in
the world, we’re talking about eternal life and the
light and the symbolism of that. Illumination, spiritual, sure, creative,
sure, intellectual, sure, illumination of all sorts. When I wrote that poem when
I got the news my mother was dying, so I hung on to ancient Latin scriptures with
the common theme of illumination, and it helped me get through a patch in my life.
I see the letters I get almost daily about that piece, other people hanging on
to my piece now, going through some awful patch. So I look for these, the
combination of all the things I just explained, and
mentioned in a poem. I’ll give you another example, I’m gonna read an arruda
poem, now we’ve all read poems about love, throughout our life, and we love the way
that poet’s treat that idea. Now this is an English translation made by
one of my son’s, I set it in the original Spanish, because I said all my
pieces in the original language, I want to do that, but I want you to hear this,
just take a moment and listen to what I consider, for me, the most beautiful love
poem I’ve ever read, so this is an arruda. “When I die I want your hands upon my
eyes, I want the light in the wheat of your beloved hands to pass their
freshness over me, one more time. I want to feel the gentleness that changed my
destiny, I want you to live while I wait for you asleep,
I want your ears to still hear the wind, I want you to smell the scent of the sea
we both love, and to continue walking on the sand we walked on, I went all that I
loved to keep on living and you whom I loved and saying above all things, to
keep flowering into full bloom, so you can touch all that my love provides you
so that my shadow may pass over your hair, so that all may know the reason for
my song.” Now the process on this, what do I do,
on something like that I’ll give you some examples at the piano, just nubs of
beginnings on the piano. If you go to your English department and say name the
10 greatest writers in the 20th century, Rilke will show up probably on all the
lists, the man wrote in German for the most part and very interesting, the last
two years of his life he went out to the town of Mozote Switzerland, little berg,
and wrote 400 poems in French, and I set a set of them for a professional choir
up in Portland, Oregon, that was doing a concert of chanson, I thought I would add
to that as well. Okay and the first one I wrote, and I thought I was just going to
be limited to this, was a poem about a rose, a little tiny nub of a poem about a
rose being slightly narcissistic. I decided to set this as a an encore piece
for this particular consort, just a little light-hearted, fun piece, nothing
fancy, to end the program, an encore piece. And I decided to put on my songwriting
writers hat and set it as a in the style of a French chanson populaire, so now I
have a focus, here is the focus. I want to set a little tiny poem in the style of a
chanson popular in French written in 1924, all those factors come together.
French, 1924, I want to make it sound French, how do I make it sound in French?
Who’s writing music about that time that we could all think about? Ravel, Debussy,
it’s that particular era. What’s a French sound, harmonically? This
is a French sound, harmonically, that’s simply a chord that Debussy and Ravel
loved, it’s a tried with an added second to it. That’s my piece of music too, because
part of the compositional technique will be to use those four notes to make a
piece out of it. Now that’s my sound, the second part of it is technical, what is a
folk song, what is a French folk song? Alright, folk song can’t be complicated
because it’s gonna be passed on by an oral tradition not a written tradition,
has to be short, has to be limited range melody, has to be easily sung, easily
remembered, probably repetitive, probably accompanied by a guitar, I don’t have a
guitar, but I got have a piano so let’s take the piano and turn it into a
guitar. So take these four notes and make it like it sound like it’s a guitar, same
four notes, just inverted. Four notes. Now take those four notes from the chord
and make a melody out of them. Those are three of the four notes. Now I want to be
able to remember that, so let’s do it again but let’s keep it fresh but, with how
about a new harmony, flip the appoggiatura around one more time. Ah, okay, new note time, freshmen theory, melody
writing 101, I have to have a new note, here it comes. That’s it, that’s motive
number two, let’s do that again. Then I’m focusing on the reciting
tone they learned from studying medieval chant, where the monks would say, okay we have
the dominant. Robert Graves is writing about the hole
in his life when he was abandoned by his mistress, Laura, writing; “dying sun, shine
warm a little longer,” that’s very passionate. So I figured, that’s the
way that this poem starts so I figured okay if I could set the words dying son
they are going to tell me a great deal about this piece. So here’s a here’s an
English man, English writer, and he’s got a bunch of angst, so we have to have a
feeling of angst, dying sun. That’s a choir doing that, dying sun, there is a wealth of information there,
first of all I have four chords to explore compositionally, what’s that,
what’s that, what’s that, what’s that, and I will explore those at great lengths and
do various inversions and so on. Secondly, oh, as you probably know from your
theory, it is a mixolydian was one of our modes, progressions, it’s basically
going, scottie snap, short long, and then also the idea of seconds going across
the page, the altos are doing this, tenors are going, oh so this piece is about
seconds. Become ninths, and off we go with that.
So my materials I gathered, the impetus of the vocal, dying sun, the guys, he’s a
very unhappy camper, he’s lost everything. What about the same kind of thing, what
about unrequited love in the Madrigali? the Italians, this is what we learn here,
at the Thornton school, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the music of Merinzio
and Monteverdi and just Walden all that and the Italians of course in the
sixteenth century are talking about unrequited love, while the English are you
know chasing fair Phyllis all over the hills and it’s going to work out just
fine, and they’re doing, “Fa, la, la.” Not the Italians, you know, this is bad news and
it’s not gonna work out, so I tried to find one particular chord, from which
the music could spring by and I call it the fire chord and it goes all the way
through six different poems that are glued together in Renaissance Italian
poems by the image of fire in a romantic sense. “I’m burning for you, you inflame me,”
you know all this kind of stuff. What’s the chord, here it is, this is my
fire chord, that’s how that piece that the USC Chamber Singers premiered, that minor
chord with an added ninth and off we go and where’s that ninth
going to be, is it gonna be down here ah Where’d that progression come from? Why, it came from the Dorian mode, this is why you study, all of these kinds of things, so
you can see how that early training. There’s a young man coming down here,
diving into English classes and being instructed on better ways to understand
contemporary poetry, for example, or poetry in general, and using it every day
and starting my class every day. It’s so much fun, I go in there, “Does anyone have
a poem?” and someone says, yeah I do, there’s one guy named Frost about a pastor, I
said okay let’s let’s leave that what we’ll talk about it so it just takes
everyone up a peg. Look, I’ve done over a hundred residences at various
universities, I go around talking about poetry and the importance of that, how
it’s affected my music and how it should affect everyone. And I get Dear Mr. Lauridsen,
thank you very much for visiting as visiting our campus, I went out and
bought some Neruda, my husband and I are reading it to each other now, each night,
before we go to bed, it’s enriched our lives thank you very

4 thoughts on “Morten Lauridsen: Connecting Poetry and Music

  1. fascinating comments by Morton Lauridson and beautifully written choral items of which 'Sure on this shining night' beats all for me.

  2. I can watch his interviews all day, especially the one based on "O Magnum Mysterium…"

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