Whitman recognizes acclaimed composer Morten Lauridsen ’65 with honorary degree

Morten Lauridsen

Although he only spent two years as a Whitman student before transferring to a conservatory, acclaimed composer Morten Lauridsen's ties to the college and the region remain.

"Fifty two years ago I came here," said the honorary degree recipient in his acceptance speech at Whitman's 127th Commencement. "I spent two years at this splendid college, where I was taught by dedicated and skilled professors of all kinds, and this stays with you. These dedicated teachers stay with you."

Considered one of the country's greatest living choral composers, Lauridsen was born in Colfax, Wash., during World War II and grew up in Portland. His parents were married in Walla Walla, and Lauridsen attended Whitman for two years before relocating to Los Angeles to focus more intensively on his craft at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.

In the intervening years, he has established himself as among the nation's most-performed composers; his works have been recorded on more than 200 CDs, several of which received Grammy nominations. For more than 40 years, he has taught music at USC, where he serves as Distinguished Professor of Composition. In 2007, he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor awarded to musicians, artists and writers by the United States government.  

"Something like that has to reflect back on Whitman," Lauridsen said. "My education here was crucial to my development as a composer and creative artist, so Whitman has to be able to claim some credit for that achievement."

An honorary member of the Class of 1965, Lauridsen's fond memories of Whitman include serving as president of his freshman class, taking a course on the philosophy of religion, and renting an apartment off-campus with his roommate for $50 a month, including utilities.

"I was very active in high school - I was student body president and just did everything - and then I came to Whitman and found out that everybody else did, too! Whitman was very selective and got the cream of the crop of students. I was among brilliant, very gifted classmates."

Lauridsen, whose list of honors, awards, grants and commissions is substantial, said receiving an honorary degree from Whitman was "very touching" and carried "deep personal meaning."

"Whitman was a period that gave me insights into what it was like to be a serious college student. It provided the groundwork for my future work, as a professor, as an artist and as a composer."

As part of his visit to Whitman, Lauridsen also addressed a large audience in Cordiner Hall prior to Baccalaureate; his remarks were followed by a performance of his celebrated composition "Lux Aeterna" by the Whitman College Chorale.

"They performed my Lux Aeterna to perfection," he said. "I was very happy to see that the choral excellence of the college continues to this day."

Among Lauridsen's most popular and enduring works, "Lux Aeterna" contains five movements set to Latin spiritual texts about light. Written while his mother was seriously ill, the piece inspires such a sense of solace in its listeners that in the wake of 9/11, classical music station KUSC cancelled its regular programming to broadcast "Lux Aeterna" in its entirety. Lauridsen has received letters from people all across the country who say listening to it has helped them cope with grief and other powerful emotions.

"My best work is done in places where I can find solitude and quietness," he said. "I finished the Lux Aeterna in a rustic cabin on the waterfront on an island that has no electricity or any of that stuff. I find peace there, and in that space I am able to go down deep. This is something that these days we have to fight for, aggressively."

In keeping with the spirit of the liberal arts, Lauridsen begins each class he teaches at USC with a poem, and urges his composition students to think critically about the language.

"I left Whitman armed with a thorough grounding in music, English, history and other subjects that have been a foundation through my career," he said. "I will remain forever grateful for the opportunity to begin my college education right here."