2017-03-05 Notes from the Bench


“Ave Verum corpus” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate



Ave verum corpus,
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
latus perforatum 
aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.



Hail, true Body,
born of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
in the trial of death.




Beginning this Sunday, our choirs will be singing a setting of the Eucharistic hymn, “Ave verum corpus” during communion. This short hymn is a meditation on the belief in Christ’s real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist and commemorates his redemptive sacrifice. John 19:34 is referenced in this text: “instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” “Ave verum corpus” has been used liturgically during Benediction, during the Offertory, and as a private devotion during the Elevation of the Host.

The history of this hymn can be traced back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Sources differ on the authorship of this hymn. A fourteenth-century manuscript says “Pope Innocent composed the following salutation…” referring to the text, “Ave verum corpus” which may refer to Pope Innocent III, (reigning from 1198-1216), Pope Innocent IV (reigning from 1243 -1254), or Pope Innocent VI (reigning from 1352-1362). Musical settings of this hymn include Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and motets written by numerous composers from the eighteenth century up to the present day.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) composed what is probably the best-known setting of this hymn in 1791. Mozart is among the most important composers in the western-classical music tradition. Mozart was born in Salzburg; his father, Leopold Mozart, a minor composer and teacher, was Wolfgang’s first instructor. Mozart demonstrated exceptional musical ability at an early age, playing the clavier and violin with great skill and composing short pieces. His father arranged for the young Mozart along with his older sister, Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart to perform before European royalty as child prodigies. Much of Mozart’s youth was spent traveling to the various royal courts of Europe and meeting various local musicians and composers. While many of the performances were successful, the travel conditions were harsh and the Mozarts endured poor health and illness that at times was near fatal.

From 1781 until his death, Mozart lived in Vienna where he achieved fame as a virtuoso performer and a composer, but had little financial security. During his career, he composed over 600 works, among them: sonatas, operas, chamber music, and orchestral works including symphonies and concertos. Mozart’s sacred works include settings of the Mass, various motets and liturgical works, and his now famous Requiem, a work that was not completed at the time of his death, but finished by the Austrian composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803). “Ave Verum corpus” was written for Mozart’s friend, Anton Stoll, who was the music coordinator of the parish of Baden be Wien, near Vienna for the feast of Corpus Christi.


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