Ave Verum

4 centuries of Sacred Music


Byrd Mozart Faure Saint-Saens Elgar

Settings of the Ave Verum by
William Byrd, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gabriel Faure, Camille Saint-Saens,
Sir Edward Elgar
, Robert Hugill and Aurelio Porfiri

Byrd - Mass for 4 Voices

Robert Hugill
Cantate Domino - Lucis Creator Optime - In Principio - A Hymn to God the Father

Paul Ayres - O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

Paul Ayres - Conductor
Malcolm Cottle - Organ

Saturday 26th June 2004 at 8.00pm
St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, SW3 5BT
View Map of Church's location

This concert is part of the Chelsea Festival. Tickets price £12.50 available in advance from the Chelsea Festival Box Office. Telephone:

During the Middle Ages the Latin prayer Ave Verum Corpus was commonly sung at the Elevation of the Host during the Consecration. It was also used during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The text was probably written by Pope Innocent VI in the 14th Century and has commonly been used by composers as the basis for a motet, frequently written for practical purposes; to be performed by church choirs.

William Byrd (1543 - 1623) remained a dedicated Roman Catholic, despite the various changes of religion in England during his life. Though he had personal protection thanks to the patronage of Queen Elizabeth, his family were increasingly harassed by the authorities and Byrd eventually retired to the country to live under the protection of Catholic Lord Petre. During this period he first produced his 3 mass settings (for 3, 4 and 5 voices). These masses can be seen as gestures of support to the Roman Catholic recusant community. Byrd actually had them printed and his only gesture of caution was to omit the title page. Being as title pages at this time contained fulsome dedications which provide us with much information about the genesis of the piece, we are thus woefully lacking information about the exact background to the masses. Almost certainly they were written for practical use in private Roman Catholic masses. We have written record of Byrdís participation as an organist in such masses. Interestingly enough, force of circumstance seems to have relaxed the rule about women singing in church and women are known to have sung in the choirs for such recusant masses.

After the printing of the masses, Byrd went on to an even greater project, two volumes of Gradualia published during the reign of James I; the intent being to provide music for all the mass propers of the church year - the first such undertaking since Isaac's Choralis Constantius about a century earlier. His setting of Ave Verum Corpus comes from the first volume of Gradualia, though it does not strictly belong to the mass propers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) wrote his setting of the Ave Verum Corpus in June 1791, for his friend Anton Stoll who was the choirmaster of the parish church of Baden, near Vienna. It was performed there for the first time on the feast of Corpus Christi. Mozart had recently become interested in writing sacred music again, having not written very much since he left the employment of the Archbishop of Salzburg, for whom he worked for most of his teens. In April 1791 Leopold Hoffman, the Kapellmeister of St. Stephenís Cathedral in Vienna, had died. Mozart saw this as an opportunity and was manoeuvring to succeed Hoffmann. Mozart may simply have worked within the confines of the ability of Stollís choir, but he was probably mindful of the Imperial ban on elaborate concerted music. Whatever the cause, he came up with a magical work which is notable for its clarity, beauty and brevity (the text is not complete, Mozart omitted the last verse).

Camille Saint-Saens (1835 - 1921) was a child prodigy and he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848. By 1853 he was organist at St. Merry. There, his Mass op. 4 was first performed in 1857. Its dedicatee, Abbť Gabriel, was so impressed that he invited Saint-Saens to accompany him on a visit to Italy. Also in 1857, he was able to take up the post of organist at the Madeleine and remained there for the next 20 years. Though we do not generally associate Saint-Saens with sacred music, he wrote a significant body of it. Like the other settings of the Ave Verum Corpus in the programme, that of Saint-Saens (written in 1860) was primarily a practical piece

For most people, the association of Gabriel Faure (1845 - 1924) with sacred music rarely goes further than his famous Requiem. But Faure held the post of organist at several Paris parish churches, and finally in 1896 chief organist at the Madeleine. His sacred music settings from this period are generally of a practical nature, charming pieces but without the genius of the Requiem. The Ave Verum Corpus dates from 1894.

The father of Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) was organist at St. Georgeís Roman Catholic Church in Worcester. From the 1870ís Elgar acted as his fatherís assistant and in 1885 succeeded his father as organist. Elgar wrote a number of short pieces for the choir, including a Pie Jesu setting for the funeral of a family friend, with whom Elgar had played operatic arias. In 1902 he created a group of orchestrated choral motets from music that he had written for St. Georgeís. The Pie Jesu became this setting of the Ave Verum Corpus.

Aurelio Porfiri (1968 - ) is a young Italian composer who is one of the organists at St. Peterís Basilica in Rome and musical director of the church of Santa Susanna His setting of the Ave Verum Corpus deliberately combines the plainchant tune with simple modal harmonies, creating a motet suitable for performance by his local church choir.

My own unaccompanied Ave Verum was written deliberately as an experiment. It combines a gentle, lilting rhythm with rather bi-tonal harmonies and towards the end a soprano and alto soloist are superimposed over the choir. My setting of words from Psalm 98, Cantata Domino (Sing to the Lord a new song), uses a soprano soloist who floats a short repeated motif over the top of the choir, whose superimposed rhythms are meant to give an impression of muttering. In Principio is another work which flirts with bitonality. Setting the opening words of St. Johnís Gospel (In the beginning was the word), the harmony and rhythm becomes more structured as the piece unfolds. Lucis Creator Optime is a setting of the Latin Vespers Hymn. I first set this hymn in 1994 for soprano and alto duet with piano accompaniment and it was first performed at the very first FifteenB concert in November of that year. This new setting, for choir and organ, is an entirely new work. The work is probably not suitable for liturgical use as it omits some of the verses. My Nunc Dimittis was first performed at a FifteenB concert in 1996 as a solo motet for alto and continuo. It has undergone a number of incarnations since and this (final?) version is for choir and organ. Despite its name, the work sets text from Job, chapter 7 and only towards the end do the words of the Nunc Dimittis come in; thus forming a dialogue between the despair of Job and Simeonís tranquil acceptance of his end. A Hymn to God the Father sets John Donneís poem for soprano and alto soli with organ accompaniment. The impetus behind the piece being the middle section where the two soloists sing the melody in parallel with the soprano high in her register and the alto low in hers.

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