Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus

Written by composer Máté Hollós
Translated by Marcell Soltész


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last piece of completed church music is no. 618 in the Köchel catalogue: a motet called Ave Verum Corpus. He wrote it for his friend, the choral director Anton Stoll, in the last year of his life (1791), in Baden, as a sort of leisure exercise, presumably with much ease. This piece is held in particularly high regard, but why? What is the secret behind its beauty? Why do we feel a thrill of delight when we hear the ingenious harmonies hiding behind the music's natural simplicity that has become almost trivial to contemporary listeners?

The purpose of the instrumental parts and the continuo is to serve as scaffolding for the vocals and to frame the composition’s form and facture with transitional bars and jumps. Let us not count these, and instead focus only on the parts of the choir when we examine the structure of the piece. The 16 bar long period - starting with the 3rd bar - divides equally into two halves, both of which have a 3 part structure: 2+2+4 bars. The answer to the half cadence that stays open on the dominant is a full cadence, this time with modulation to the dominant. Before a further examination of the form let us take a look at the melody- and harmony palette. Above the tonic organ point, we hear a tonic and subdominant bar. The former breaks down the harmony of the I. degree, while the latter – in typical Mozart fashion – descends chromatically. The choir barely gets to the word “Hail”, and already the music paints a picture of pain and suffering, since the singer (the composer) knows what his song is about and to whom he is singing. The “true body” shines in the light of a simple dominant-tonic cadence built from thirds. Simple dominant? A seventh-like harmony framed by a seventh chord in the first inversion spirals and twists with a slender III. degree chord in the second inversion. “Born of the virgin Mary” – the majestic message is formulated with a trivial chord on the V. and I. degree.

The chromatic melody wasn’t just purely aesthetic in the 2nd bar of the vocals. In the second half-period, the g# plays a role. ”Having truly suffered” – it reappears to these words – “sacrificed” – and here the broken chord emphasising the g# seemingly transforms from a D-major pre-dominant to a major of A dominant. Pain is represented by a parallel chromatic progression in both the alto and bass parts, softening the singer’s lamenting voice with a deceptive cadence. The peak in the soprano appears in terrible loneliness, with the actual modulation creeping under it – “sacrificed on the cross for mankind”.

The first phrase of the second greater period feels like a middle part. With a bold key change, it starts in the chromatic third relative F-major. “From whose pierced side…” – the naturalistic words are illustrated by a wailing-like descant and a tenor part with a chromatic melody that seems to go against the grain (from an augmented V. degree seventh chord in the second inversion to a simple seventh inverted the same way). The motif is supported by the fact that the second two bars of this period follow the same melodic pattern that was established in the second two bars of the first period… “water and blood flowed:” seventh chords and chromatic progressions, a delayed deceptive cadence and a IV. degree seventh chord raised with a transitional chord in the second inversion serve to evoke these words. The F-major modulates to its parallel minor’s dominant, from which it returns to our starting key of D-major. “Be for us a foretaste…” – here Mozart leaves behind the almost chorale-like compositional techniques he has used so far, and imitates the chord progressions of the female vocal parts in the male parts, only a fifth lower. “Be for us a foretaste in the trial of death!” – these most important words are repeated, but to give the second time more emphasis, it stops on a deceptive cadence. However, this cadence is not a combination of the V. and VI. degree, instead a III. degree sixth is followed by a IV. degree sixth. The reason for this is the expression “in the trial of death” – a sombre thought to contemplate. If this line was given to an actor they would surely refrain from exclaiming it, preferring to use a more subtle approach instead. This is exactly what can be heard in Mozart’s chord progression. He makes the listener appreciate the weight of these repeated words with subtle semitone steps, and in the soprano part, the melody reaches an unprecedented height. This is the first time we can hear the two parts – soprano and tenor – meaningfully counter moving. The last time “trial” is sung, the melody moves to the same IV. degree sixth, that was used as a deceptive cadence 4 bars before. Can anybody truly believe that this is a coincidence? That this came to him by pure accident? Unlikely. The part between the two similar chords – according to the rhetoric of music – was seemingly put between dashes. And all we have described so far is a mere three minutes! That is the answer to the question we first proposed.


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