Byrd's the Word - the history behind Ave Verum Corpus
The Ave Verum Corpus, a 14th century hymn that is sung during a mass's Eucharistic consecration, is one of the most widely used texts amongst sacred historical composers. Consequently, each composer’s edition seems to epitomize their respective overarching styles. Josquin, a Renaissance composer, uses polyphony to create a piece with multiple melodic lines running throughout in interlocking patterns. Mozart’s edition is in classical structure that is sung with vibrant symphony. Franz Liszt, who epitomizes late 19th century romantic impulses, utilizes more dissonance and unstructured form to convey the pain described in the words above. So what part does Byrd play in this historical narrative? To properly answer that, one must consider the culture in which Byrd lived.
16th Century England, under the charge of Queen Elizabeth I, was officially Protestant; and although Byrd was famous in his day, he constantly lived in fear of losing commissions because of his Catholic faith. Because of this, many of Byrd’s earlier sacred works were smaller in scope, and included phrases and musical suspensions meant to secretly signify the desire for equal protection for Catholics in England. By 1605, under the rule of King James I, Byrd felt comfortable enough to compose his most overtly Catholic book of songs, Gradualia. From this song set comes this beautiful setting of “Ave Verum Corpus”.
At the same time, styles from composers such as Thomas Tallis (Byrd’s mentor) and Tomás Luis de Victoria were making their way across Europe. This new breed of composer took the purely polyphonic phrasing that composers such as Josquin or Palestrina had created, and incorporated some chordal elements to help convey feelings of sadness or passion. As such, the works of Byrd, including “Ave Verum Corpus”, exhibit many of these same elements.
Putting the musical and cultural elements together, one finds a proudly religious piece, which isn’t afraid to examine one of the most sacred parts of the Catholic faith and mass. Similarly to earlier sacred works, the text is paramount to all phrasing, and is easy to understand. Instead of using a 4 part polyphonic form throughout, Byrd mixes the style with each phrase. This allows the listener to hear and process the text while still responding emotionally to the music. 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”.