O Magnum Mysterium

Four carols for SATB chorus, with two instrumental sonatas and organ fantasia


40 minutes




Commissioned by





SATB chorus (unaccompanied or discreetly doubled), flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, *percussion (7 players), viola, cello, organ
*percussion (7 players): 2 side drums, bass drum, suspended cymbal, Indian cymbal, wood block, 4 temple blocks, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone


1. Carol: O Magnum Mysterium (treble only; solo if preferred)
2. Carol: Haylle, comly and clene
3. Sonata I: Puer Natus
4. Carol: O Magnum Mysterium (treble and alto only)
5. Carol: Alleluia, pro Virgine Maria
6. Sonata II: Lux Fulgebit
7. Carol: The Fader of Heven
8. Carol: O Magnum Mysterium (to four voices)
9. Organ Fantasia on O Magnum Mysterium


Composer Notes

O Magnum Mysterium was written in 1960 for Alan Wicks, who was then organist of Manchester Cathedral, and the Chorus and the Orchestra of Cirencester Grammar School. It was first performed, complete, in Cirencester Parish Church in December of that year.

Writing music for young people presents certain problems – it must be reasonably within their comprehension and technical ability, but there can be no compromise or condescension – children would soon see through that. Also, rehearsal time was far from limitless in the life of a small-town grammar school – the choir met for 90 minutes each week, out of school hours, and the orchestra for a little over two hours, partly in school time and partly out. (Extra rehearsal for particular voices or instruments was difficult to arrange, due to the constant rival claims of other school activities.) Of this time, only a certain proportion could be spent on new music.

O Magnum Mysterium gradually took shape during rehearsal, and the recording differs slightly, even in instrumentation, from the finally published version. A work involving children must not only be ‘childproof’ but adaptable to the needs and performing abilities of the moment. The inclusion of percussion instruments and some very simple instrumental parts ensured that even beginners could participate.

The whole work is a meditation on the soprano solo heard at the outset – on the wonder and promise of the Nativity. This solo is followed by a carol whose text comes from the Second Shepherd’s Play of the Wakefield cycle of mysteries – the shepherds bring the Christ Child gifts – cherries, a bird and a ball ‘to go to the tennis’. The first sonata, Puer Natus, takes the opening soprano melody and subjects this to displacement and instrumental coloration. Next a second version of the O Magnum Mysterium melody, for sopranos, with an additional alto counterpoint; then a carol with choruses in praise of the Virgin Mary, separated by verses tersely foretelling the course of Christ’s life and death. The second sonata, Lux Fulgebit, has sections where the players, following explicit directions in the score, improvise – a simple and graphic representation of the spread and intensification of the light of the Nativity. The last two carols are, in contrast, calm and reflective – a prayer of the Virgin (The Fader of Heven) and a final four-part harmonization of the O Magnum Mysterium melody.

Although the different sections of this work may be performed separately, the music heard so far only becomes really comprehensible in relation to the concluding Organ Fantasia, to which it forms, as it were, a huge ‘upbeat’. So far one has heard simple songs of the Nativity and extrovert instrumental commentaries, performed by children. Now a virtuoso on music’s most complex and developed instrument adds the final comment, in a sequence of variations on the O Magnum Mysterium melody, which realizes, on far deeper and more searching levels, the implications of our theme.

Programme Notes

Short Note by Paul Griffiths

The compete O Magnum Mysterium is a substantial work for secondary-school children, eminently suitable for a Christmas concert.

The carols are in Davies’s characteristic style, distinguished by rhythmic interest and a use of modes with a flattened fifth. O Magnum Mysterium and The Fader of Heven are both slow; Haylle, comly and clene and Alleluia, pro Virgine Maria both lively. The Fader of Heven is for SA only, the others for SATB, though in a full performance O Magnum Mysterium is directed to be sung three times, by S (possibly a solo), SA and SATB.

Both the sonatas are based on this carol, as is the fantasia (which might provoke discussions about how composers work). The first sonata, Puer Natus, is a slow meditation passing the melody from instrument to instruments. The second, Lux Fulgebit, encourages percussion improvisation in a vivid image of brightening light.

The culmination to Davies’s school work is a solo fantasia on the musical substance of his own setting of the carol, but the Organ Fantasia can also be played separately as a towering and dramatic composition in its own right, gradually gaining in speed, contrapuntal complexity and force as it moves to its challenging climax, which is followed by a profound slow dissolution.


First Performance

Cirencester Parish Church

8 December 1960,

Chorus and Orchestra of Cirencester Grammar School