Ave Verum Corpus (Mozart)

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

About the Music

Of the three sacred works that Mozart composed in Vienna, his motet Ave Verum Corpus is the only one that he completed.1 He passed away November 20, 1791, before finishing his Requiem. He had finished Ave Verum on June 17th or 18th, only five months before his death.2 Most sources say that was intended for performance at the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 23, 1791.3 It was “also used as a benediction, offertory, and private devotion,” and “a sequence associated with the votive Mass of the Most Holy Sacrament.” Stoll’s choir and orchestra had performed Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass, K. 317, a year earlier and would perform his Missa brevis in B-flat, K. 275, the following July.4 However, David Ian Black writes, “there is no direct evidence that Ave verum corpus was performed in Baden in 1791, or indeed that Mozart intended the piece solely for Anton Stoll.”5

While dwarfed in size by and perhaps overshadowed by Mozart’s masterworks, Ave Verum has received a great reception from the few musicologists who have taken the time to analyze it. Bruce C. MacIntyre calls it “Mozart’s last and most beloved choral motet.”6

Lindsay Kemp writes,

Scored for four-part choir, strings, and organ, and only 46 bars long, it is a work which initially impresses with its tender simplicity. Closer inspection, however, reveals its meticulous and perfect craftmanship, with melodic lines lovingly shaped, voice-leading exquisitely drawn, and every detail of harmony tellingly judged.7

Alfred Einstein writes,

The perfection of modulation and part-writing, lightly introducing polyphony as a final intensification, [is] no longer perceived. Here… eclesiastical and personal elements flow together. The problem of style is solved.8

Finally, Andrew Raeburn calls it, “a piece of wonderful simplicity, a pure distillation of heartfelt devotion.”9

Analysis, Interpretation, and Performance Notes

Mozart wrote Ave Verum when visiting his pregnant and sick wife Constanze in Baden.10 One can’t help but speculate that his wife’s condition influenced the work, which begins with Christ being born of the Virgin Mary.

It is my belief that Mozart intended for this motet to be performed more slowly and freely than many conductors take it. For example, “ave” is repeated in the opening line, with a comma after the first word. A long breath on the comma, creating space and freeing the tempo, captures the awe of the first sight of the Child in Mary’s arms. In general, the commas in the text are perfect places for breaths. These breath placements may seem unconventional at first, as they don’t follow the traditional 4-bar format, but when you look at the contours of the melody, they make the shaping of each phrase very naturally rise and fall.  One of the genius aspects of this work’s design that the audience may never notice is how naturally the shape of the phrasing feels when singing any of the harmony parts or playing the instrumental parts. Each part flows freely on its own, yet together they complement each other perfectly. Few composers and arrangers in the history of our art have written parts that flow as easily as this one does.

The harmonic language is sophisticated, yet accessible. Christ’s birth in the opening statement is a simple D major progression, then the tonal center changes to A major and more chromatic lines and dense chords are used as the text delves into Christ’s suffering. The Passion blooms with an isolated perfect fourth in the soprano line on “in cruce” (on the cross), which floats above the ensemble, which then joins the sopranos and gently brings the phrase to rest back at A major. A short instrumental interlude brings the key back to D, but in minor now as Mozart explore’s Christ’s bloody death, God’s sharing of the ultimate experience of mortality. There are moments of chromaticism in the piece that are beautiful, and this piece is a great way to incorporate some chromatic solfege.

MacIntyre adds a helpful analysis in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia,

The solemn, subdued work (Adagio; D Major) is scored for four-part chorus, strings (two violins, viola, cellos/basses) and continuo. All parts are marked sotto voce; and all voices except the bass are restricted to a range of less than an octave. The solemnity reminds us of Mozart’s Masonic music from this period. Subtle control of musical rhetoric is evident in the affective chromaticism and twisting harmonic modulations. In the emphatic repeat of ‘in mortis’ the sopranos leap expressively to their highest pitch, d”. The only lapse in the overall homophonic texture comes, appropriately, with the paired imitative entries at ‘Esto nobis praegustatum’ (be for us a foretaste).11

It is amazing that Mozart can capture so much emotion in only 46 measures of music. Perhaps this piece is so often overlooked because of its brevity; it is certainly worthy of more attention than it gets. All the more reason that we should stretch it with a slow, free tempo.

Recordings

  • Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, cond. Stephen Cleobury, Mozart Vespers (EMI, 1989) – Phrasing and breathing are great. Tenor and bass voices are very prominent.
  • Choir of New College, Oxford, cond. Edward Higginbotham, Agnus Dei: Music of Inner Harmony (Erato Disques, 1997)
  • Handel & Haydn Society, cond. Harry Christophers, Mozart Requiem (The Sixteen Productions, 2011)
  • Westminster Cathedral Choir, cond. James O’Donnell – Very slow, expressive interpretation that is closest to my own preference.

Resources

  • Black, David Ian, “Mozart and the Practice of Sacred Music, 1781-91,” doctoral thesis, Harvard University, April 2007.
  • Choral Public Domain Library (sheet music & arrangements)
  • Eisen, Cliff, & Keefe, Simon P. (edt.), The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 293-295.
  • Wikipedia
  • Zaslaw, Neal, & Cowdery, William (edt.), The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 1990), p. 28.

Related Works

  • La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemcy of Titus, K. 621) by W.A. Mozart
  • Coronation Mass (K. 317) by W.A. Mozart
  • O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen
  • O Magnum Mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria
  • Per questa bella mano (K. 612) by W.A. Mozart
  • Requiem (K. 626) by W.A. Mozart
  • Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, in F major (K. 273) by W.A. Mozart

Footnotes

  1. Kemp, Lindsay, program notes for the Mozart Requiemrecording by the Handel and Haydn Society, directed by Harry Christophers, p. 9.
  2. Golding, Robin, program notes for the Mozart Vespersrecording by The Hilliard Ensemble and Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, p. 4, lists date as June 18. Raeburn, Andrew, in Zaslaw, The Compleat Mozart, p. 28, lists date as June 17. MacIntyre, Bruce C., “motet,” in Eisen, Cliff, & Keefe, Simon P. (edt.), The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia(Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 293-295, also lists it as June 17.
  3. Raeburn.
  4. MacIntyre, p. 295.
  5. Nairn, Robert, recorded commentary on the Mozart Requiemrecording by the Handel and Haydn Society, directed by Harry Christophers, track 16.
  6. MacIntyre, p. 295.
  7. Kemp, p. 9-10.
  8. Quoted by Golding, p. 5.
  9. Raeburn.
  10. Black, David Ian, “Mozart and the Practice of Sacred Music, 1781-91,” doctoral thesis, Harvard University, April 2007.
  11. MacIntyre, p. 295.
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