Ave verum corpus was a common theme of church music long before Mozart. Camilla Pang’s Private passions reminded me of the motet by William Byrd. I used to sing it in my school choir, and though many features of my youth are mercifully vague, somehow (like Bruckner’s Locus iste) I still remember this piece in some detail.
I was quite oblivious to its context. Byrd was a Catholic in Protestant England, practising in secret amidst persecution, like “underground” Chinese Catholics under Maoism. Ave verum corpus comes from Byrd’s Gradualia, published in 1605, the very year of the Gunpowder plot. Here it is sung by The Sixteen:
It attained its popularity only in the modern era; being strictly a Catholic work, it was totally shunned by English church musicians until its revival by Catholic choirs late in the 19th century. In an age of greater religious tolerance its popularity quickly spread, and by a pleasing twist of fortune Byrd’s Ave verum corpus is now a staple not only of Catholic choral worship, but of Anglican too. Ave verum corpus at Evensong: again, Byrd would have been amazed.
The finer points of the doctrinal divide are still rather lost on me (miserable sinner that I am): it’s hard now to hear “militant sectarianism”—yet another instance of the changing values of reception history (relevant posts there including Bach, and Alan Bennett’s points about art).
Das Land ohne Musik—Pah!
Other posts featuring wondrous a cappella singing include A Swedish psalm, Brahms, Strings and voices, and Fassbinder’s bitter tears (Gibbons!). For a fantasy of travels in time and place, cf. Orlando Gough, The world encompassed.