"Ave verum corpus" or "Hail true body"?

Should the choir sing in Latin?

During a recent choir practice Philip was leading us through Byrd's "Ave verum corpus", and he drew our attention to the importance of the Latin words, such as the build up of tension during the repetition of "in cruce... in cruce.." Words are of course very important, otherwise we might as well just sing "la la la", and some people have argued that the choir ought always to sing in English so that everyone can understand. This is a compliment to the choir, as it implies that our diction is so good that the words are always clearly audible. However, there are disadvantages to singing Latin anthems in English.

Latin and English are very different languages. Latin has fewer words which are often longer, due to the varied endings. Because the part that the word plays depends on its ending rather than its position in the sentence, word order is flexible. The poetry of Latin derives from the position and the rhythm of the words. For example, "Stabat mater dolorosa" and "Mater dolorosa stabat" both mean "the sorrowful mother was standing", but the former emphases the standing because that word comes first. In English there is a greater choice of words but their order is fixed within the sentence, and the poetry derives more from the choice and rhyme of words.

Latin anthems are printed with an alternative English translation below the Latin words, with the same number of syllables and often in rhyming couplets. Unfortunately the English words cannot correspond exactly to their equivalent in Latin. When composers set Latin texts to music they emphasize crucial words or phrases, by repeating them, having suspensions, changing the harmony, or other musical devices. When sung in English, these devices often emphasize the wrong words and so the musical sense is lost. Moreover, because of trying to shoehorn the Latin into foursquare rhyming couplets, the effect in English often borders on doggerel. At St Peter's, when the choir sings the anthem in Latin we have tended to print this English verse in the service sheet rather than the Latin text.

Ave verum corpus natum

Ave verum corpus natum is one of the most beautiful pieces of medieval religious poetry, and has been attributed to Pope Innocent VI. Although short, just five lines long, it covers the Incarnation, the Passion, the Eucharist and the Last Judgement. During the Middle Ages it was sung at the elevation of the Host during the consecration.

Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine.
vere passum immolatum in cruce pro homine:
cuius latum perforatum fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine.
O Iesu dulcis! O Iesu pie! O Iesu fili Mariae.

Medieval writers were interested in acrostics, and you will notice that the first letter of the first line, the second letter of the second line, and so on, spell out A-E-I-O-U.

A frequently used translation is given below, but I find it unsatisfactory. With its "tum-ti-tum" rhythm and flowery imagery going beyond what is in the original, it strikes me as chocolate-box Christianity at its most sickly.

Hail, true Body truly born - of the Virgin Mary mild.
Truly offered, wracked and torn - on the Cross for all defiled,
from whose love-pierced, sacred side - flowed Thy true Blood's saving tide:
be a foretaste sweet to me - in my death's great agony.
O my loving, Gentle One - Sweetest Jesus, Mary's Son.

I have attempted a plainer translation in free style, not trying to make rhyming couplets, but keeping closer to the sense of the original.

Hail true body: that was born of the Virgin Mary,
That truly suffered and was sacrificed on the Cross for men,
From whose pierced side flowed water and blood;
Be for us a foretaste of death and judgement.
O sweet and gentle Jesus!, son of Mary.

I should like to suggest that the choir continues to sing Latin anthems in that language, but that the service sheet should print the Latin text followed by a plain free-style translation that is as close to the original as possible. The congregation will be able to follow what the choir are singing, and everyone will be able to understand the meaning of the Latin words and appreciate how the composer has enhanced them. In Byrd's setting of the text for example, the music for "O sweet and gentle" is indeed sweet and gentle, but is immediately followed by a great powerful surge of sound for "Jesus!, son of Mary".

Latin may be a "dead" language but it underpins much of Western culture and language. As long as we are given a good translation, why should we not continue to sing it in church and benefit fully from the inspiration of so many great composers?

Mike Leuty

Hear the choir sing

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Ave verum - Byrd OGG | MP3

Recorded at Southwell Minster on 22nd February 2004, directed by Philip Collin.

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th July 2003