VOCES8 has done it again, with another exceptional recording of sacred choral music from the Renaissance.
In early June, VOCES8 released this stupendous rendition of William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus.” The piece is a stand out work in Byrd’s collection, which is prized as some of the most adept music composed in England during the Renaissance.
VOCES8’s treatment of the 17th-century tune is phenomenal, as they pronounce the Latin text with all due reverence. Their hushed tones maintain a somber atmosphere for the work, which speaks of the sacrifice Christ made for the world. The text translates to:
Hail, true Body,
born of the Virgin Mary,
who has truly suffered,
was sacrificed on the cross for mortals,
whose pierced side flowed with blood:
Be for us a foretaste [of Heaven]
in the final judgment.
Oh sweet, oh pious, oh Jesus, son of Mary,
Have mercy on me. Amen.
The last two lines were an addition that Byrd made on his own and do not appear in the traditional text.
Catholic in Protestant England
Although he was a prolific composer, William Byrd did not begin to write his sacred choral works in earnest until later in his life, after his Catholic conversion. As a Catholic composer living in England just after the nation adopted Protestantism, Byrd was always in fear of losing his commissions due to his faith.
Wicker Park Choral Singers explain that it was due to this prejudice that Byrd’s early sacred works were very small in scope. Under Queen Elizabeth I, Byrd would often conceal in his works phrases or musical notation that would secretly signify his desire for equal protections for Catholics in England.
When King James I took power, however, anti-Catholic sentiment began to subside and Byrd started to feel more comfortable composing more overtly Catholic works. This is when he composed one of his most treasured books of Catholic music, called Gradualia, from which comes “Ave Verum Corpus.”