Representations of Beauty in Choral Music at the Beginning of the 20th and 21st Centuries: Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” and Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux”

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Concepts of musical beauty change over time. The origins of harmony—influenced by the Pythagorean mathematical ideal of whole-number ratios—adored perfect intervals in parallel motion. By the time of the Renaissance, imperfect consonances were the aesthetic model. They displaced consecutive perfect intervals with such thoroughness that even today, beginning students of music theory are prohibited from writing parallel perfect fifths and octaves as they learn to master the principles of common-practice music.

To be sure, aesthetic ideals at the beginning of the 20th century differ from those governing today. We have heard medieval, Renaissance, Classical, Romantic, and a plethora of 20th century styles of music. And yet, some aspects of musical beauty transcend time. My purpose in this paper is to begin exploring these ideals of beauty by comparing passages from two compositions written almost a century apart. In doing so, I will focus on the music’s structure, rather than the less tangible affect that music has upon the listener. The sources of the two passages are Arnold Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” of 1907, and Morten Lauridsen’s “O Nata Lux” of 1997.

Both works feature a sacred text for unaccompanied choir. “Friede auf Erden” sets a four-stanza poem by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (1825-1898), reflecting Schoenberg’s typical habit of choosing texts written by poets who were his contemporaries. The theme of Meyer’s poem is Christ Jesus, deliverer of the world from darkness to peace. Most often, I believe, public attention remains on the poem’s title “Peace on Earth.” As a case in point, I share a personal anecdote: I first heard this work performed live by an exceptional choral ensemble in Boston, the Cantata Singers. It was January 18, 1991—two days after the start of Desert Storm. So much like today, war was in the headlines. The audience’s response to the stirring performance was overwhelmingly enthusiastic—the applause and cheering continued for several minutes. And then the extraordinary happened: the Cantata Singers repeated the entire piece. To this day, I believe the audience was responding both to the exceptional performance and to the work’s title, but not the poem’s essential message of Christ as the peace-bearer. Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” has since become a signature piece for the Cantata Singers. When they performed the work in concert this past spring, it was again presented twice, first in the program and then as an encore.1

Although Schoenberg most often set the poetry of his contemporaries, Lauridsen’s chosen texts represent a broad historical spectrum, including Biblical Psalms and poetry by Robert Graves, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rainer Maria Rilke. “O Nata Lux” is a Latin text that describes Christ as the world’s redeemer, Light born of Light. This a cappella motet is the central movement of a larger work, the other movements set for choir and small orchestra. Lux Aeterna has been described as a non-liturgical requiem. Lauridsen composed the work following his mother’s death, which parallels the circumstances under which Brahms composed his German Requiem. Although Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna was written less than ten years ago, it has received numerous performances and has been released on three recordings.

This reveals a stark contrast between Schoenberg and Lauridsen. During his lifetime, Schoenberg’s compositions often generated more controversy than congratulations, and more puzzlement than praise. Even by modern standards, some of his compositions sound avant garde. Lauridsen, on the other hand, has achieved a level of acclaim in the classical choral music world that compares to that of Ray Charles or Dolly Parton in their respective genres. Over one million copies of his music have been sold. He has the distinction of composing the highest-selling choral scores published by the American distributor of his music, Theodore Presser Company, which has been in existence since 1783. This level of popular acclaim evaded Schoenberg during his lifetime. Even today, only a few of his works are performed with any regularity, and “Friede auf Erden” is certainly to be counted among that group.

Of course, Schoenberg’s music has survived the test of time that Lauridsen’s has not yet sustained. Will his music still be performed in a hundred years? Or will his music be a phenomenon isolated to this generation? Will the beauty of his music transcend time?

Another point of comparison between Schoenberg and Lauridsen is their musical training. Unlike the leading musicians of his time, Schoenberg did not receive conservatory training. Lauridsen, on the other hand, earned graduate degrees in music from the University of Southern California, an institution at which Schoenberg taught in the mid-1930s and which housed the Arnold Schoenberg Institute from its founding in 1973 until its transfer to Vienna in 1998. Lauridsen joined the USC faculty in 1967, where he remains still.

But Schoenberg lived in a musical milieu that was confronting a confluence of crises. Richard Wagner, who died in 1883, bequeathed innovations in harmonic language that still captivate audiences and vex music analysts. He developed a style abundant with musical signifiers, but almost devoid of key-defining resolutions. Working more within traditional forms of symphony and lieder, Johannes Brahms died in 1897. And in these same waning years of the 19th century, organist and composer Anton Bruckner taught a generation of musicians at the Vienna Conservatory. His students, many of whom became successful musicians in their own day, recalled that he taught traditional harmony and counterpoint, not composition in the modern style. They studied musical principles formulated in the mid-1800s based on even earlier practices. Yet, Bruckner himself composed in a style influenced by the modernism of his time.

Several years after beginning his own musical studies, Schoenberg received instruction from Alexander Zemlimsky, a conservatory graduate who championed his music. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were also among Schoenberg’s encouragers. But Schoenberg was exploring new harmonic territories. Although his earliest works have been assessed for their Brahmsian qualities,2 Schoenberg’s compositions from around the time of “Friede auf Erden” have been identified as “transitional works,” in that they are neither fully tonal in a 19th century fashion, nor truly atonal in the style that Schoenberg would develop later.3 Most significant for our purposes is what Schoenberg referred to as the “emancipation of dissonance.”4