Mozart’s Communion: A Holistic Harmonic Analysis of “Ave Verum Corpus”

By Abraham Rusch

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Written in less than forty-eight hours during the year 1791, the forty-six measures of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus captures the depth of Catholic Eucharistic theology that the piece represents. In his setting of Ave Verum Corpus composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Mozart synthesizes chromatic and tonal harmonic structures to project the religious themes of death, salvation, and communion within the ancient Latin hymn. By studying the religious and historical moment at which Mozart wrote the piece, the role of the text as a work of theology becomes apparent. Upon understanding this theology, a thorough analysis of Mozart’s choices from both tonal and chromatic perspectives provides fresh insight as to how Mozart himself related to the text on a personal and compositional level.

To understand Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, one must first know about the world in which he was composing and the text that he was setting. A short study of the religious and political situation surrounding Mozart greatly aids the conversation about the work. In 1791, when he composed the piece, Mozart was working mostly out of Vienna.[1] During this time, Vienna was part of the Holy Roman Empire ruled by the Habsburg family, providing political stability for the region. Though the Protestant Reformation had made significant inroads during the 1500s, the successful efforts of the Habsburgs and the Counter-Reformation soon restored Vienna to Catholicism. Thus, Vienna of Mozart’s time was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in politics and practice.[2] Political stability and support for Catholicism enabled devotional art and music, such as Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, to flourish.

Communion Chalice from 1790

Within the Holy Roman Empire of Mozart’s time, this culture of Catholicism and popular piety influenced both art and liturgical practice. One expression of popular piety was short hymns added to various parts of the liturgy. Coming from the longstanding tradition of these popular devotions, the text of Ave Verum Corpus goes back at least the year 1293.[3] Eventually, the text made its way into the official liturgy and was associated with the Elevation of the Host, the point in the Mass when the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the substance of bread and wine changes into Jesus Christ.[4] By Mozart’s time, churches used the Ave Verum Corpus text to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, a special day in the church calendar in honor the Eucharist.[5] The text itself is a simple eight-line poem consisting of four couplets, each of which takes on important meaning in light of Catholic Eucharistic theology:

Ave, verum corpus natum                Hail, true body born
De Maria virgine,                                  Of the Virgin Mary,
Vere passum, immolatum                 Which truly suffered, immolated
In cruce pro homine.                          On the cross for man.

Cuius latus perforatum                     Whose pierced side
Unda fluxit et sanguine:                    Flowed with water and blood:
Esto nobis praegustatum                  Be for us a protection
In mortis examine.                              In the trials of death.[6]

As one who regularly attended church, Mozart was certainly familiar with text before he set it in 1791.[7] In fact, according to his letters, Mozart himself was a pious man who prayed daily and believed sincerely in God, heaven, and the Eucharist.[8] For instance, when his mother passed away in 1778, the composer eloquently expressed his faith that God had “called her to Himself”[9] and granted her “a happy death…in the richest measure.”[10] Although Mozart had not composed church music for several years before he wrote Ave Verum Corpus, there was no lack of piety on Mozart’s part – he fully understood and presumably believed in the text.

Present-day Baden Countryside

The real impetus for composing the work was a visit to Baden, a spa town by Vienna, on June 16-17, 1791. While visiting his wife who was in Baden for health reasons, Mozart wrote the piece as a gift to Anton Stoll, the music director at the church there.[11] One of the composer’s letters, written just days before the visit, indicates a personal restlessness and a desire to be with his wife in her illness.[12] In fact, some scholars speculate the summer of 1791 in Mozart’s life also coincided with a spiritual reawakening.[13] With the Feast of Corpus Christi fast approaching (on June 23 of that year), personal restlessness, and a spiritual rebirth in the making, the circumstances were ripe for the conception of masterpiece. During the short visit to Baden, Mozart penned the forty-six measures of birth, death, salvation, and communion that have thus far transcended the centuries. [14]

Autograph Manuscript of “Ave Verum Corpus”

Understanding circumstances that gave birth to Mozart’s setting of Ave Verum Corpus, one can then turn the piece itself and delve into the richness of the its harmonic construction and how this richness relates to the text as Mozart would have understood it, given his religious faith and life circumstances. The path into Mozart’s harmonic language is one well-trod by scholars. However, a new path may be forged among the relationship between harmony, chromatic saturation, and theology contained within the text of the work.

Among the work previously done on this topic is Paul Weber’s article, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style.” In his article, published in the journal Sacred Music, Weber looks at the construction of the work from a purely tonal perspective, surveying its harmonic structure and drawing parallels between it and sonata form. Indeed, Ave Verum Corpus does resemble a classical sonata in that it establishes the dominant key area before returning to the tonic. After surveying the overall harmonic structure, Weber goes into further detail on specific moments of text painting within the tonal structure. He elaborates on the how the most graphic descriptions of suffering are accompanied by dissonant harmonies and intentional motivic links are created between sections. In this way, Paul Weber successfully describes Mozart’s work from tonal and textual perspective.[15]

Contrasting with this strictly tonal take on Ave Verum Corpus, Edward Green’s article, “The Principle of Chromatic Saturation in the Late Choral Music of Mozart and Haydn,” examines the use chromatic saturation several pieces, including Ave Verum Corpus. Green’s article, first published in Choral Journal, begins by explaining the concept of chromatic saturation, a compositional technique where composers intentionally complete the chromatic series at various points within their works. Subsequently, he launches into a discussion that documents use of chromatic saturation in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, and, of course, Ave Verum Corpus. In Ave Verum Corpus, Green connects the two chromatic completion moments with the overall symmetry of the piece. He further notes that there is a textual and theological significance behind the placement of these moments, but does not elaborate on what that significance might be.[16] Thus, scholars have pondered the structure of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus from chromatic, tonal, theological perspectives at various times.

While it is important to analyze Mozart’s masterpiece from chromatic, tonal, and textual viewpoints individually, each viewpoint only scratches the surface of the work. By synthesizing these analyses, one can embark on a novel journey that begins the plumb the depths of Ave Verum Corpus and Mozart’s compositional genius. In such a synthesis, Ave Verum Corpus becomes a profound statement of faith in the Eucharist and the relationship between the believer and Christ.

Neue Mozart Ausgabe (Digital Mozart Edition)

The holistic exploration of Mozart’s motet begins with the theology in the poetry and the support of these ideas in music. From the very outset of the work, the composer’s focus on theology is apparent. In the first couplet of the poem, two important ideas present themselves. First, the Eucharist is “true flesh” or changed from bread into something else.[17] Though Mozart introduced chromaticism in measure 4, he restricts himself to the diatonic collection to express the perfection of the transubstantiated “verum corpus” or “true flesh” (mm. 5-6).[18] The second theological idea presented in the text is identifying Eucharist as “natum de Maria virgine” or “born of the Virgin Mary” (mm. 7-10). Using Weber’s idea that compares Ave Verum Corpus to sonata form, measures 7-10 represent the journey away from the tonic key area into the dominant.[19] The journey away from tonic fits with the text’s evocation of Christ and the Eucharist proceeding from the womb of his mother Mary. Theologically, Christ leaving his mother’s womb enables vulnerability that leads directly to Passion, just as this journey from tonic leads directly to the dominant, which represents the Passion.

Mozart sets the middle couplets of the poem, which speak about Christ’s Passion, to music that reflects key theological points about the sufferings. With one exception, the music up until the second couplet has been free of any chromaticisms. However, at the word “passum,” which translates as “suffered” or “endured,” Mozart re-introduces the G-sharp, the first of several non-diatonic pitches that emphasizing the sufferings of Christ (m. 12).[20] The next chromatic pitch introduced is E-sharp on the word “immolatum,” which translates as “offered in sacrifice” or “immolated” (m. 14).[21] Thus, the introduction of pitches foreign to D major serves as means of unifying the sufferings of Christ, a pattern continued into second half of the piece with the words “perforatum” (pierce/perforate)[22] and “sanguine” (blood).[23]

In addition, Mozart provides unity to the middle couplets of the piece by remaining in the dominant key area. Taking a wide-angle view of the tonal structure of the piece, the first couplet, which discusses the body of Christ, and the fourth couplet, which speaks of the believer’s relationship to Christ is accompanied by harmonies that function in the tonic. On the other hand, the second and third couplets markedly remain away from harmonies that function in the tonic. Since the analogous section in sonata form, the development, represents the least stable part of the work, Mozart’s choice to set the Passion in instability reflects the graphic nature of the text. The unity created in these middle couplets by key area and chromatic connections reflects a movement in Christian theology to think of Christ’s sufferings as “one inseparable whole.”[24] This movement, which occurred early in Christian history, influenced other theologians and composers through Mozart’s time. Thus, Mozart’s choices that unify the Passion section of Ave Verum Corpus reflect ideas in Christian theology.[25]

While we get a sense of Mozart’s theology by examining the Passion section as a whole, the composer also includes several structural devices within the section to elaborate on his theology. The part of the piece most harmonically removed from tonic occurs in at the very center of the work in measures 23-25. At this moment, Mozart tonicizes the bVI of the dominant, while the text proclaims “cuius latus perforatum” (whose pierced side). In the Gospel accounts, this piercing is confirmation to authorities that Christ has actually died.[26] Not by chance does this moment occur in the very center of the work, since Christian theology regards the death of Christ as the one of the central points in salvation history. Moreover, Catholicism teaches that the Church is born from “Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation…symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified.”[27] Thus, the motion away from tonic Mozart began with Christ’s birth (m. 7) culminates harmonically and theologically in the birth of the Church from Christ’s pierced side (mm. 23-25). These tonal harmonic connections are only a few of the many connections within the piece that parallels theology.

Goya’s 1780 Painting “Christ Crucified”

Approaching the Ave Verum Corpus from the view of chromatic saturation and melodic contour, even more theological symbols reveal themselves in the music. The first moment of chromatic saturation occurs on a C-natural during the description of Christ’s pierced side, a symbol of Christ’s death and the Church’s birth (m.23). Interestingly enough, the second chromatic completion occurs in measure 39, when the believer asks Christ to be present in his or her own death. Mozart intentionally made this connection between the death of Christ and the death of Christians, since, according to the Catholic Church, “The Christian who unites his own death to that of Jesus views it as a step towards him and an entrance into everlasting life.”[28] These two moments of chromatic completion, easily overlooked as unrelated, actually are a statement of faith by Mozart, who believes that an earthly death united to Christ’s will be a step towards eternal life. The composer reinforces this relationship between Christ’s Passion and the believer’s death through the melodic contour he chooses in the piece. Of the two instances that the sopranos sing a D5 for over four beats, the first instance describes the cross on which Christ suffered (mm. 15-16) and the second describes the death of the believer (mm. 38-39). One of the only other times the soprano section reaches the D5 is during “perforatum” (pierced) of measure 24. Through his melodic choices, Mozart realizes the intrinsic link between Christ’s cross/death and the moment of death for the believer. Thus, every aspect of the musical writing reflects choices Mozart made to emphasize the theology behind the hymn.

Rightly regarded as a masterpiece within its genre, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is both a work of musical mastery and profound statement of belief in Eucharistic and salvation theology. Within the piece, Mozart employs a variety of musical techniques to make important theological connections between different sections of the texts. Taken as a whole, these theological connections transform a beautiful piece of music into an eloquent work of art expressing communion between believers and Christ, especially at the time of death. It is little wonder this piece has endured the test of time and is still frequently used in both sacred and secular settings around the world.


[1] Cliff Eisen, et al., “Mozart,” Grove Music Online, ed. Deane Root, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Vienna,” by Joseph Lins, accessed April 25, 2014, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/.

[3] Paul Matthew Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Eighteenth Century Musical Style,” Sacred Music 138, no. 1 (Spring 2011), 45.

[4] Michael Martin, “Ave Verum Corpus Natum,” Treasury of Latin Prayers, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Euch/AveVerum.html.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, online edition, 1377.

[5] Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus,” 45.

[6] Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus,” 46.

[7] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Robert Lewis Marshall, Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991), 172.

[8] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Friedrich Kerst, Mozart: the Man and the Artist Revealed in His Own Word, (New York: Dover Publications, 1965), 96.

Mozart and Marshall, Mozart Speaks, 174.

[9] Ibid., 173.

[10] Ibid., 174.

[11] Michael Steinberg, “Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618 Program Notes,” The San Francisco Symphony, accessed April 25, 2014, http://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/MOZART-Ave-verum-corpus,-K-618-%E2%94%82-Symphony-No-39-in.aspx.

[12] W. J. Turner, Mozart: the Man & His Works (New York: Tudor, 1938), 365.

[13] Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus,” 46.

[14] Steinberg, “Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus.”

[15] Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus,” 43-54.

[16] Edward Green, “The Principle of Chromatic Saturation in the Late Choral Music of Mozart and Haydn,” Choral Journal 46, no. 12 (June 2006): 34-50.

[17] The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” by Herbert Thurston, accessed April 25, 2014, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/.

[18] Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, “Ave Verum Corpus,” KV. 618, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, Serie I: Geistliche Gesangswerke, edited by Wolfgang Plath and Wolfgang Rehm, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963.

[19] Weber, “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus,” 51.

[20] William Whittaker’s Words, s.v. “Passum,” accessed April 25, 2014, http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.

[21] William Whittaker’s Words, s.v. “Immolatum,” accessed April 25, 2014, http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.

[22] William Whittaker’s Words, s.v. “Perforatum,” accessed April 25, 2014, http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.

[23] William Whittaker’s Words, s.v. “Sanguine,” accessed April 25, 2014, http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.

[24] The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Devotion to the Passion of Christ,” by Herbert Thurston, accessed April 25, 2014, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/.

[25] Ibid.

[26] John 19:34 (New Revised Standard Version).

[27] Catechism of the Catholic Church, online edition, 766.

[28] Catechism of the Catholic Church, online edition, 1020.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 25, 2014. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/.

Eisen, Cliff, et al. “Mozart.” Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.

Green, Edward. “The Principle of Chromatic Saturation in the Late Choral Music of Mozart and Haydn.” Choral Journal 46, no. 12 (June 2006): 34-50.

Martin, Michael. “Ave Verum Corpus Natum.” Treasury of Latin PrayersAccessed April 24, 2014. http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Euch/AveVerum.html.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “Ave Verum Corpus”, KV. 618. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, Serie I: Geistliche Gesangswerke. Edited by Wolfgang Plath and Wolfgang Rehm. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Friedrich Kerst. Mozart: the Man and the Artist Revealed in His Own Word, (New York: Dover Publications, 1965).

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Robert Lewis Marshall. Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991).

Steinberg, Michael. “Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618 Program Notes.” The San Francisco Symphony. Accessed April 25, 2014. http://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/MOZART-Ave-verum-corpus,-K-618-%E2%94%82-Symphony-No-39-in.aspx.

Turner, W. J. Mozart: the Man & His Works (New York: Tudor, 1938).

Weber, Paul Matthew. “Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Eighteenth Century Musical Style.” Sacred Music 138, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 43-54.

William Whittaker’s Words, accessed April 24, 2014. http://archives.nd.edu/words.html.