Work: Ave verum corpus
About This Work
The Eucharistic hymn Ave verum corpus, though not Proper to the Mass, is clearly associated with the Mass of the Holy Sacrament; other liturgical uses may include a Mass Offertory, or performance during the focal moment of the Elevation of the Host.
The text, traditionally presumed to have been written either by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) or Innocent IV (1243-1254), celebrates the Incarnation, the Passion, the Atonement, and the expected Second coming of Christ; the flowing of water from His side draws a linkage between the two greatest sacraments of the Church: Communion (whose symbols figure as well the crucifixion) and Baptism. William Byrd, who remained obstinately faithful to his personal Catholic faith in the face of lifelong threats of persecution in Reformation England, thus chose a richly evocative text for one of his most intimate and passionately devotional motets.
Byrd's Ave verum corpus is published among a complete series of motets for the feast of Corpus Christi, in the second volume of his Catholic motet publication, the Gradualia. It's most striking musical gesture, the F-sharp/F cross-relation which first appears in the very opening phrase can be said to embody a theological point: it emphasizes the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation by stressing "O Hail, true Body." Though Orlando di Lasso, for instance, also uses a cross-relation in the opening phrase of his setting of Ave verum corpus, Byrd's gesture is much more direct and foregrounded. Indeed, despite brief passages of imitation between voices, the motet proceeds largely in chordal motion; the recurring juxtaposition of cross relations - F and F sharp, B and B flat - thus remains poignantly immanent in the music. The motet closes with a repeated direct address to Christ, with the Soprano voice leading with a quasi-solo invocation, and a plea for mercy upon the speaker. The addition of this passage to the liturgico-poetical text, and the pathos of its setting, argue further for the intimately private nature of the devotions for which it was written.
-- Timothy Dickey, All Music Guide
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