O magnum mysterium

14th December 2009 | Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations | 2 comments

King's College Chapel yesterday

King's College Chapel yesterday

Yesterday I was in King’s College, Cambridge to hear the ‘Carols from King’s’ service, which will be broadcast on Christmas Eve on BBC2. When I was a student at the college, the choir sang Evensong every day and I missed most of the services, telling myself that I could go any time I liked. Now that I can’t go any time I like, it seems a huge luxury to sit there in the winter darkness and listen to sacred choral music, beautifully sung, for a couple of hours. The Chapel, whose resonant acoustic can obliterate certain kinds of instrumental music, is a perfect setting for the choir. At the end of each piece, the great building seems to go on caressing the memory of their voices for seconds, reluctant to let go.

The choir is composed of men (students of the college) and boys (pupils at the nearby choir school). It never ceases to amaze me that some of little choristers, who look as if they might be more at home in the tuck shop or on the rugby field, can open their mouths and utter divine streams of melody, looking angelic as they do so. And I’m convinced that their radiance when they sing is not an illusion. Music shows a side of them which must take some of their loved ones aback.

Mediaeval carols have always been my favourite. But, as at last year’s Carol Service, it was a modern setting which I found especially haunting. Last year I loved a motet by James MacMillan. This year it was American composer Morten Lauridsen’s setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’. One of the readers said afterwards that she was glad she hadn’t had to speak directly after that particular piece, because it was very affecting.


  1. Robert Tucker


    O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen sung by Kings College Choir at the 2009 Christmas Eve Carol Service was indeed so spiritual and moving -totally enhanced by the wonderful acoustics of the Chapel.
    Just thought I had to agree!
    Regards Robert Tucker

  2. Paul Austen

    I don’t know that piece, Susan. I thought from the title that it was going to be about another setting of O Magnum Mysterium by Olivier Messaien, which is another divine masterpiece and strangely (and sadly) his only piece of sacred choral music.

    I too have a wonderful memory of Kings chapel from many years ago. I went to an evening concert – I can’t remember but I don’t think it was the Kings College Choir – which included Tallis’ “Spem in Alium”. The 8 4 part choirs were spaced around the chapel and that glorious music filled the darkened space in true octophonic sound!!! It was one of those memorable and totally moving musical experiences that I’ll never forget!! And now I have another – of your cathartic performance with the Gaudier of the Schumann Piano Quintet!!


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