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Incredible countertenor helps “Ave Verum Corpus” ring like never before

J-P Mauro - published on 02/03/21

The Gesualdo Six put on a performance of a lifetime from England's Ely Cathedral.

There is no shortage of breathtaking music in the Catholic songbook. Even among such a prolific collection, some pieces stand out as masterpieces. This is the case for William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” a 16th-century Eucharistic hymn that encapsulates the rich emotions of the Mass through exquisite use of polyphony.

This remarkable piece, considered by many to be Byrd’s finest, is so intricate that entire volumes have been dedicated to its analysis. The work’s use of dynamics creates an impassioned atmosphere, and the style puts the lyrics to the forefront. This is one of the most important elements sacred music, as the texts are of paramount importance to the Mass. While this allows the faithful a chance to meditate on the text, it also acts as a musical metaphor that reflects the sacrifice Christ made in His Passion.

This is one of the most incredible aspects of sacred music: it takes care to insert theological elements into the musical structure. An analysis from the Wicker Park Choral Singers explains this audible symbolism best:

A good example of this starts with the phrase “O dulcis,” where the Soprano part begins independently, and is followed by the lower three voices. Each of the three phrases in this section ring together to signify their unified acknowledgement of Jesus’ sacrifice. However, by the time the text gets to “miserere,” there is a sudden switch to 4-part polyphony. This change thickens the musical texture, as if to show the multifaceted nature of “mercy.”

The Gesualdo Six

The Gesualdo Six, a six-member male choir from England, expertly captured the essence of Byrd’s piece in 2018. The chamber choir is notable for its exceptional vocal structuring and near flawless diction, but the tenor steals the show. With a crisp, unwavering tone, his high notes create a rich reverberation that practically enchants the melody. Aided by the high ceilings of Cambridgeshire’s Ely Cathedral, the tone becomes transcendent in the second half.

Learn more about the Gesualdo Six here.


Read more:
Lose yourself in the absolute beauty of sacred choral music

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