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Motet Notes

John Harbison: "O Magnum Mysterium" - II

Whereas John Harbison’s short setting of O Magnum Mysterium emphasizes a generalized mood, one of medieval contemplation and devotion, the longer setting composed a few months later for an Advent service at Emmanuel is a much more specific response to the mystery in the text. Harbison has aligned the two key words that underline the mystery – the child lying (iacentem) in the manger and the worthiness of Mary to carry (portare) him are motivically related and are like the converse of each other. The humility and lowliness of the scene is subtly characterized by details small (the tiny intervals in triplet rhythm that denote the animals) and large (the overall strategy of using suspensions, which bow forever down, as the binding thread of the motet). The wonder of the scene is implied throughout, from the upward leaps of the opening to the rapt address to Mary, something happening outside of time.

©Craig Smith