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Catholic roots music: Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”

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Prepare yourself for 4 minutes of musical bliss.

“Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” – Amadeus (1984)

This quote from the 1984 blockbuster hit Amadeus perfectly captures the essence of Mozart’s compositions. There have been countless sacred works composed since Mozart’s time, but few of them come close to the reverence and beauty that the famed composer could capture in just four minutes.

“Ave Verum Corpus” is a short Eucharistic chant that dates to the 14th century, and its text is most commonly attributed to Pope Innocent VI. During the Middle Ages, the text was chanted during the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, but today it is often sung as a Communion antiphon or at Benediction.

Mozart wrote the piece for his friend Anton Stoll just four months before his death. The composition foreshadows many of the elements of his Requiem, which sadly he was unable to complete before his death. While the Requiem is dramatic, however, this short motet is a gentle expression of Eucharistic devotion, arranged in simple means.

As a poem, “Ave Verum Corpus” is an invaluable meditation on the Catholic belief in Jesus’s real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It ties to the Catholic conception of the redemptive meaning of suffering in the life of all believers.

The sheer reverence of the piece is wonderful to listen to. Imagine a choir singing like angels as the priest prays the words of consecration, with the music swelling as he holds the Host high above his head. There is a reason composers used to put every modicum of their talent towards veneration; beauty attracts us. What better way to spur religious belief than to blanket a congregation in some of the most beautiful sounds ever sung?

English lyrics:

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
having truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
water and blood flowed:
Be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death!

O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus,
O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.

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