Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus – K.618

Mozart Ave Verum Corpus
Mozart Ave Verum Corpus

Even if you claim not to like the music of Mozart, after a single hearing of this sublime piece, I doubt whether anyone would remain unconvinced of Mozart’s talent and ability to write music of extreme beauty. The Ave Verum Corpus is a brief piece of music lasting only two and a half minutes. This makes it all the more astonishing that in such a short time period, Mozart could have captured the essence of these sacred words and elevate them to a truly heavenly status.

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus

This was one of the very final works that Mozart composed, and in spite of the difficulties he was facing at this time of his life, including failing health, he wrote music that has an enduring tranquillity and sense of peace. The year was 1791 and Mozart, now in Vienna, was busy working on his opera “Die Zauberflote” (The Magic Flute). Later that year also came the opera seria, “La Clemenza di Tito” and the memorable, richly melodic, Clarinet Concerto (K.622).

It was also the time when the Mozart’s were expecting the birth of their sixth child and Mozart’s wife Constanza was enjoying the relaxation provided by the spa in Baden; a small town near to Vienna where she often visited. Mozart was able to take a short interval from his demanding composing schedule to be with Constanza, and it was there in Baden that this work was commissioned.

Read also: Biography of Mozart

Austrian choirmaster, Anton Stoll is the man we can thank for commissioning Mozart to write the Ave Verum Corpus. Constanza often visited the small town of Baden to enjoy the cures, and Mozart himself knew the town and its Choirmaster quite well. This is important to the work as even on a first hearing it is not difficult to note its simplicity. Unlike the setting for the Requiem (K.626) that Mozart never completed, the Ave Verum Corpus is set modestly and in a beautifully serene manner.

Mozart was fully aware that the choirmaster had limited musical facilities and so chose deliberately to set the words for mixed choir, small string ensemble and an organ continuo, (organ accompaniment). The work is in D major which often for Mozart is a hopeful key and certainly one relatively easy for amateur string players to perform in. In the Ave Verum Corpus, it seems to bring an almost transparent lightness to the music.

Essentially, Ave Verum Corpus is a Motet. As a musical form, the Motet dates back as far as the 14th Century and is most commonly the setting of sacred Latin texts from the Christian Bible. They were more traditionally composed to celebrate important holy days in the Christian calendar.

The Motet also comes in secular, (non-sacred), forms that gained in popularity in the late 14th and early 15th Century courts. As the musical form moved into the 16th Century the idea of a Motet developed to include nonliturgical texts captured ably by the composer like Gabrieli and the size of vocal ensembles grew accordingly from the relatively small to many choirs in a single work.

This places Mozart’s composition at the turning point of the Classical Music era and I would suggest makes it all the more important at this stage of his life. The Motet as a musical form declined in the Romantic Era but was adopted by Brahms and later the French composer Poulenc.

Mozart set sacred text throughout his life although his true passion was for the drama and narrative the stage. The choice of text here was most likely to have been because of the Christian celebration called The Body of Christ or in Latin, Corpus Christi. Stoll commissioned the Ave Verum Corpus as a setting of the hymn for the Eucharist; hence Ave Verum Corpus or Hail, the true body of Christ.

The Latin text draws the attention to the suffering of Jesus Christ and in Mozart’s setting, the clarity of the text is supremely clear, leaving us in no doubt as to the sincerity of the composition, or its message. It may even hint at the huge difficulties that Mozart was facing in 1791 and perhaps Mozart’s inner longing for peace and solace.

Even though the piece appears simple and is brief when compared to other works of the time, the inventiveness is ever present. Mozart employs all his skills in this Motet, combining effortless melodic ingenuity and harmonic colour without compromising the meaning of the text. In his article for “All Music” James Leonard astutely notes, “…with its severe serenity, the motet is transcendentally glorious, and in its final line, “Be for us a foretaste of the trial of death,” the work achieves the sense of the eternal and the infinite that the Requiem never attains”. This comment, in my opinion, eloquently encapsulates the very nature of this all too brief piece of late Mozart. Whether we agree that this motet actually surpasses the final Requiem is for us each to decide but in the case of the Ave Verum Corpus, it is all Mozart’s work and truly magical.

A closer analysis of the work shows that Mozart chose to set the words syllabically. This means each of the words has one note per syllable. The intention is clarity and meaning of the words, the two notable exceptions being, cruce, (cross), and in particular mortis (death) that are melismatic. This means Mozart decided to draw attention to the words by musically extending them over with more than one note per syllable. The words sing out in the Soprano melody contrasting the largely homophonic (tune plus an accompaniment) texture.

Subtle chromaticism litters each of the melodic lines bringing a richness of colour to the simple textures created by the ensemble. There is an enduring sense for me of Mozart looking back to the works of Bach and his chorales underpinning a search for a new Classical simplicity that may have been the direction his future compositions may have adopted. Now, we will never know.

Finally, a brief and lighter look at this Mozart piece and its place in the Hollywood Movies. Here are the three most commonly credited with using the Ave Verum Corpus, showing the astonishing versatility of Mozart’s enduring musical oeuvre.

1930 – L’Age d’Or (Bunuel)

1997 – The Peacemaker

2004 – Lorenzo’s Oil

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