Music for the Third Sunday After Pentecost — June 18, 2023

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) or 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 William 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, our communion motet in church this Sunday, and 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.

Gerald Harder