While working on this post I have listened to Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus about a dozen times. I have heard this piece hundreds of times in my life, and each time it becomes a little more beautiful to me. It is my absolute most favorite piece ever written. If I could only listen to one musical work for the rest of my life, this would be it (and I would have few complaints about that!).
Enjoy the free sheet music download of Ave Verum Corpus. It also includes the middle two bar interlude which to my ears is correct (some editions only have a bass continuo line).
I sang this piece as a boy soprano with the Northwest Boychoir in Seattle, WA. This Sunday I am leading our church choir in Ave Verum Corpus for our service. At our rehearsal tonight (somewhere in the Bible it must be written that church choir rehearsals have to be on Wednesday nights!) the choir was so absolutely beautiful in their final run through I was nearly brought to tears. I would not let them sing anything after that – why? There is nowhere to go after hearing Ave Verum Corpus sung well. It is THAT powerful.
At a glance I can see the theory of the piece easy enough – but when coupled with a reverence for the text; I know of no piece more powerful than this. To say “his side was pierced and out flowed blood and water” in one line, and a few paces later to say “to give us a foretaste of death”, or more properly “to give us an examination of the death experience” – AND THEN to know that WA Mozart wrote this piece within six months of his own death. Let this settle on you for a bit.
When all things are stripped away and we are at our core, we have the beauty of our relationships and the base denial and unbelief of our own eventual death. Which of us can truly accept and admit our own pending death? Not in passing, but to absorb that thought. I actually think it is beyond the scope of our imagination. But we have a composer like WA Mozart who can create a piece so powerful and solemn that we are humbled to our knees to accept the fact – and perhaps to bend our thoughts to the sublime mystery of Christ’s crucifixion.
Working with our choir has given me a rebirthed passion for this piece. In rehearsal we are able to think about the slow passing of each line of text, and how we want to express each syllable, word and phrase. It is how I think a sculpture must feel – slowly chipping away til the art takes form.
And as our church choir works on each minute detail to make this piece our best, as countless choirs have also done on this piece for two centuries; I start to smile as I realize this is our worship, the musician’s time to worship, the way we relate to the mystery of the Trinity and our mortal coil – our worship takes place between the notes as we practice and work. It is delicate as a flower.
HISTORY OF AVE VERUM CORPUS
Ave verum corpus is a short Eucharistic hymn dating from the 14th century and attributed to Pope Innocent VI (d. 1362), which has been set to music by various composers. During the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the host during the consecration. It was also used frequently during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The hymn’s title means “Hail, true body”, and is based on a poem deriving from a 14th-century manuscript from the Abbey of Reichenau, Lake Constance. The poem is a meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and ties it to Catholic ideas on the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.
AVE VERUM CORPUS by W.A. MOZART
In April of 1791, Leopold Hofmann, who was Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, fell gravely ill. Mozart, who had never been an avid composer of sacred music, nonetheless saw an opportunity to enhance his income, and maneuvered to succeed Hofmann. Towards this end, he turned his attentions again to sacred music, culminating ultimately with his Requiem. (As it happens, Hofmann survived Mozart, and died in 1793.)
Mozart set the Eucharistic hymn Ave verum corpus in June 1791. This setting was dedicated to his friend, Anton Stoll, who was chorus master of the parish church in Baden, and it was first performed in Baden at the Feast of Corpus Christi.
It is possible that Mozart set this hymn, mindful of the Imperial ban on elaborate concerted music, or it is possible that he was working with the limitations of Stoll’s choir. One way or another, his setting is remarkable for its compact simplicity. There are a mere forty-six bars of music, with orchestral writing that serves to provide introduction, transition, and ending, and double the choral parts. The choral setting is simplicity itself, with the choir mostly singing the same text at the same time. This direct approach would suited a reform-minded Austria where textual clarity and brevity were all-important in church music.
Mozart’s setting is far from pedestrian or undistinguished. (It actually isn’t even complete; the text below includes the last two verses, which Mozart omitted from his setting.) There is an unusual modulation from D major to F major at the text, “whose side was pierced, whence flowed water and blood,”, and the simplicity is the sort that Artur Schnabel famously described as too simple for children and too difficult for adults (after all, simple music like this exposes any lapses of rhythm, intonation, or ensemble). And the music seems to encompass a universe of feeling in forty-six short bars.
Ave Verum Corpus – W.A. Mozart
Latin Text and English Translation
Ave / verum / Corpus, natum / de / Maria / Virgine:
Hail / true / Body / born / of / Mary / Virgin,
Vere / passum, / immolatum / in / cruce / pro / homine:
truly / suffered / was sacrificed / on / cross / for / mankind
Cujus / latus / perforatum, / unda / fluxit / et / sanguine:
Whose / side / was pierced / from where or water / flowed / and / blood
Esto / nobis / praegustatum / in / mortis / examine.
Be / for us / foretaste / in / of death / testing
PARAPHRASED ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary,
who has truly suffered, and was sacrificed on the cross for mankind,
whose side was pierced, whence flowed water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste of heaven, during our final trial.
SINGING IN LATIN VS. ENGLISH
Latin and English are very different languages. Latin has fewer words which are often longer, due to the varied endings. Because the part that the word plays depends on its ending rather than its position in the sentence, word order is flexible. The poetry of Latin derives from the position and the rhythm of the words. For example, “Stabat mater dolorosa” and “Mater dolorosa stabat” both mean “the sorrowful mother was standing”, but the former emphases the standing because that word comes first. In English there is a greater choice of words but their order is fixed within the sentence, and the poetry derives more from the choice and rhyme of words.
Latin anthems are printed with an alternative English translation below the Latin words, with the same number of syllables and often in rhyming couplets. Unfortunately the English words cannot correspond exactly to their equivalent in Latin. When composers set Latin texts to music they emphasize crucial words or phrases, by repeating them, having suspensions, changing the harmony, or other musical devices. When sung in English, these devices often emphasize the wrong words and so the musical sense is lost. Moreover, because of trying to shoehorn the Latin into foursquare rhyming couplets, the effect in English often borders on doggerel. At St Peter’s, when the choir sings the anthem in Latin we have tended to print this English verse in the service sheet rather than the Latin text.