Music for Corpus Christi — Sunday, June 14, 2020

Ave verum corpus – William Byrd (c. 1540 – 1623)

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This short eucharistic hymn is said to have been written by either Pope Innocent III (1198-1215) of Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254). It is often used liturgically during Benediction and during the Offertory of the Mass, and has long been associated with the feast of Corpus Christi.

16th-century England, under the charge of Elizabeth I, was officially Protestant; and although Byrd was famous in his day, he constantly lived in fear of losing commissions because of his Catholic faith. Because of this, many of Byrd’s earlier sacred works were smaller in scope, and included phrases and musical suspensions meant to secretly signify the desire for equal protection for Catholics in England. By 1605, under the rule of James I, Byrd felt comfortable enough to compose his most overtly Catholic book of songs, Gradualia. From this song set comes this beautiful setting of Ave verum corpus, one of the most familiar and treasured examples of Byrd’s church music.

Ave, verum corpus,

natum de Maria Virgine:
vere passum,

immolatum in cruce pro homine:
cuius latus perforatum
unda fluxit sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Jesu dulcis, O Jesu pie,

O Jesu Fili Mariae,
miserere mei. Amen.

Hail the true body,

born of the Virgin Mary:
You who truly suffered

and were sacrificed on the cross for the sake of man.
From whose pierced side
flowed water and blood:
Be for us a foretaste (of heaven)
in the trial of death.
O sweet, O merciful,

O Jesus, Son of Mary.
Have mercy on me. Amen.


Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele (Op. 122) – Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

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Brahms spent the summer of 1896, his last, at Ischl in Upper Austria. In the previous few years he had lost a great many of his closest friends, including the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow and the scholar Philip Spitta, but perhaps the cruellest loss was that of Clara Schumann, who had succumbed to a stroke in May. The gruelling forty-hour journey which he undertook to attend her funeral undoubtedly took its toll on his own health; the liver cancer that would end his life in April of the following year was already far advanced, and he spent much of his time putting his affairs in order. It was at Ischl that he composed his last music, the Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op 122.

It is intensely private music, and while death is the subject of certain of the chorales he chose, the collection is not exclusively to do with endings. In fact, the best-known item, Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, is concerned with a most important beginning – the birth of the Saviour. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (‘Bedeck yourself, O dear soul’) consists of an unadorned chorale melody in the upper part with two free-flowing contrapuntal lines underneath. It is found in in our blue hymn book (Common Praise) at number 78 and in the green book (New English Hymnal) at 280 with a text translated by the prolific translator of hymns from German to English, Catherine Winkworth, the first verse of which follows:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
Come into the daylight’s splendour,
There with joy thy praises render
Unto him whose grace unbounded
Hath this woundrous banquet founded;
High o’er all the heavens he reigneth,
Yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.


Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! – Text: William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898); Music: Rowland Huw Prichard (1811-1887)

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William Chatterton Dix, the son of a surgeon father, became manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow. From an early age he developed an interest in literature, and writing became his favourite pastime. He translated hymns from Greek and Abyssinian sources and published many original hymns. Two have become very popular: “What child is this, who, laid to rest…” and “As with gladness men of old…”, along with the present hymn. Dix composed this hymn, consisting of five 8-line stanzas, in 1866. It bore the title “Redemption by the Precious Blood” and was first published in Altar Songs 1867.

The famous Welsh tune HYFRYDOL (the word means “good cheer”) was composed about 1830 by Rowland Hugh Prichard, who at the time would not have been more than 20 years old. It has a beautiful, simple melody which falls completely within the compass of a fifth except for the last phrase. It first appeared with English words – the present hymn – in the English Hymnal 1906. Although it is found in our blue hymnal at number 374 in the “Praise” section, verses 3 and 4 give this hymn a particular eucharistic focus. In Dix’s original version of the hymn, the first verse is repeated as a fifth verse; it is omitted in this rendition by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. At St. James’ we sing this hymn in procession at the end of Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!
His the sceptre, his the throne;
alleluia! his the triumph,
his the victory alone.
Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion
thunder like a mighty flood;
Jesus, out of every nation,
hath redeemed us by his blood.

Alleluia! Not as orphans
are we left in sorrow now;
alleluia! he is near us,
faith believes, nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him,
when the forty days were o’er,
shall our hearts forget his promise,
“I am with you evermore”?

Alleluia! Bread of heaven,
thou on earth our food, our stay:
alleluia! here the sinful
flee to thee from day to day;
Intercessor, Friend of sinners,
earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
where the songs of all the sinless
sweep across the crystal sea.

Alleluia! King eternal,
thee the Lord of lords we own:
Alleluia! born of Mary,
earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne.
Thou within the veil hast entered,
robed in flesh, our great high priest:
thou on earth both priest and victim
in the eucharistic feast.

Gerald Harder