Once again, the esteemed a cappella vocal ensemble VOCES8 is reminding listeners of just how high the Catholic songbook set the bar for beauty in music over the last 2,000 years. On January 19, 2024, the eight singers released a rendition of “O Salutaris Hostia,” a prayer for the Hour of Lauds from the pen of St. Thomas Aquinas and set to music by one of the finest English composers of the Renaissance, William Byrd.
The hymn is a prime example of the polyphonic style, with each singer performing a solo vocal melody, all of which come together to create interesting musical textures and often complex chords and harmonies.
The video’s many closeups on the group allow viewers to see the polyphonic style in action. While they are all obviously together in time with the song, their mouths never move at the same time. With each passing note, another singer grabs the attention of the ear to create a cascading quality to the sound.
“O Salutaris Hostia,” Latin for “O Saving Sacrifice,” is a Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, the famed 13th-century Dominican friar and priest who is a Doctor of the Church. It is one of three hymns that he wrote for the feast of Corpus Christi, with the other two being the much used “Panis Angelicus” and “Tantum Ergo.”
This hymn is actually composed of only the last two verses of one of the hymns sung on the feast of Corpus Christi, the “Verbum Supernum Prodiens.”
Along with the “Pange Lingua,” this hymn was written at the request of Pope Urban IV, who instituted the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264.
A literal translation of the Latin text reads:
O saving Victim,
Who expandest the door of heaven,
Hostile armies press,
Give strength; bear aid.
To the One and Triune Lord,
May there be everlasting glory;
who life without end
gives us in the homeland.
Hear more fine sacred music, and some gorgeous secular art songs, at the VOCES8 YouTube channel. Be sure to follow them to keep up with all of their fine releases.