Just about everyone interested in choral music knows Mozart's serene Ave Verum Corpus. Expactations concerning mood and tempo that the listener may bring from his knowledge of the Mozart work will not be met by Harbison's violent, inwardly-tormented setting of the same words. The opening cries of "Ave" are harsh, shrill, assaultive, like the jeers of the crowd gathering at the crucifixion; the words "Verum Corpus," writhing in the lower voices, like letters nailed to the cross. Harbison's setting is a dramatic reenactment of the scene that brings into bold relief the central irony of the text: man, who showed so little pity towards another, asks so much for himself. In the two large division of the motet the first section bears the brunt of the violence. Pictorialisms carved out of harsh intervals illuminate each word of the text. Particularly remarkable are the cruel, random rhyhmic jabs at "cuius latus perforatum (whose pierced side) and the virtual tidal wave of blood ("unda fluxit et sanguine") which seems to flow right to the present moment. In the second part, beginning "O dulcis," man, greatly humbled, begins his entreaty. The music fans out into a passionate climactic cry "O Jesu Fili Mariae" and the subsequent plea for mercy at "miserere mei" has a real "out of the depths" quality. The concluding "Amen" is a rueful echo of the opening that can't bring resolution to the severe conflicts that the motet raises.
©David St. George