The communion time provides perhaps the greatest opportunity in the Mass to employ additional music. In most parishes, communicants are numerous, and providing music for the whole time may even be a challenge. The communion antiphon alternated with psalm verses is one good solution--it is expandable to suit the time, according to the number of verses and repetitions of the antiphon. The publication Communio by the Church Music Association of America provides those antiphons with their verses. There may also be time for some playing of the organ or a hymn sung by the congregation. If the choir is capable of it, however, a motet can be a very suitable conclusion to the communion time. It should be on a text appropriate to the season, or on a generally appropriate liturgical text, such as, for instance, Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, or even better, on a traditional Eucharistic text.
We have from the Renaissance a number of such Eucharistic motets; one in particular, has been a favorite of the congregation for which my choir sings: Pierre de La Rue's O salutaris hostia. This motet is found within the Sanctus of La Rue's Missa de Sancta Anna, where it replaces the first Osanna. It is thus an "elevation" motet, a devotional piece meant to be sung at the elevations of the the host and the chalice. It must be remembered that until the Second Vatican Council, the Sanctus was sung during the silent recitation of the Canon of the Mass, and that the first Osanna is a likely place for the elevation to take place. Such elevation motets within Sanctus movements are also found in works of Josquin Des Prez, in a complete Mass (Tu solus qui facis mirabilia in the Missa D'ung aultre amer), and in two independent Sanctus movements (Tu lumen, tu splendor Patris in Sanctus D'ung aultre amer and Honor et benedictio in Sanctus de passione).
Joseph Jungmann cites examples from the thirteenth century and later of prayers of devotion provided to the laity for recitation at the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, and also of later sung pieces for the elevation: By 1450, O sacrum convivium was sung in Strassburg after the Benedictus; in 1512, King Louis XII of France ordered O salutaris hostia to be sung at Notre Dame Cathedral between the Sanctus and Benedictus; by 1521 Ave verum corpus and Gaudete flores were also sung at Paris. (1)
A particularly notable use of such motets is found in the unusual practice at Milan known as motetti missales--motets on various sacred texts that replaced the proper liturgical texts; thus a motet designated "loco sanctus" would be sung while the priest recited the normative text of the Sanctus. These motetti missales included elevation motets, often designated "ad elevationem," and on such texts as O salutaris hostia and Adoramus te, Christe. They were in a very homophonic style, often marked with fermatas, sometimes concluding with a section in quick triple time. Stylistically this homophonic style has origins in the lauda, a devotional piece, sometimes in Italian, sung by lay brotherhoods called laudesi. The laude were very simple part songs in a consistently homophonic style.
Elevations survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, witness Caesar Frank's Mass in A, Op. 12, which originally included an O salutaris hostia after the Benedictus; this was later replaced with the well-known Panis angelicus. Likewise, Pie Jesu Domine is found as an elevation in such Requiem Masses as those of Luigi Cherubini, Gabriel Faure, and Maurice Durufle. The Cistercian order maintained elevations in chant until the time of the Second Vatican Council: normally O salutaris hostia, but for Masses of the Blessed Virgin, Ave verum Corpus, and for Requiem Masses, Pie Jesu Domine, "Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem," three times, with the addition of "sempiternam" the third time. The motu proprio of St. Pius X provided only one place for a motet in the solemn Mass--after the Benedictus--evidently an elevation motet.
Instrumental music was also used at the elevation; in Rome at St. Peter's silver trumpets were played in place of the Benedictus, and Masses explicitly written for St. Peter's are often lacking a Benedictus, because of this practice. In the Baroque, organ pieces were played at the elevation, often in a chromatic style to express the height of devotion. The elevation toccatas of Frescobaldi, for instance, are in a chromatic style quite distinct from that of his other toccatas.
La Rue's O salutaris hostia plays upon the lauda style: it begins in a nearly homophonic manner, but with a slightly decorative addition between soprano and alto at the repetition of "hostia." The second phrase is completely homophonic; but with the third phrase, "Bella premunt hostilia," the voices begin to develop some independence, passing around among them a brief pattern of a dotted whole note followed by a pair of quarter notes. The fourth phrase begins as if the homophony had been recovered, but in only a measure's time the voices begin to move independently, and on the words "fer auxilium" engage in four-part imitation, a stepwise descending pattern, which at the time-interval of a whole note makes parallel tenths and sixths leading directly to the final cadence. The juxtaposition of simple, direct homophony at the beginning of each phrase with varying degrees of emerging polyphony gives this piece an elegance and simplicity that suits the object of its devotion.
I would take a speed of about 60 per whole note, and maintain a very regular tempo, aside from the fermatas at the ends of phrases. This regular tempo is necessary, particularly in the quick ornamental flourish at m. 3 in the soprano and alto, and at the imitation in the last phrase. But also the strictly homophonic parts demand particular attention: they require a perfect simultaneous declamation. I ask singers to focus upon speaking the text exactly together as they sing the piece. Likewise in the homophonic sections, the accent of the text must play a role: in the phrase, "Quae caeli pandis ostium," the accented syllables should determine the rhythm of the phrase, rather than following a measure-based rhythm; La Rue makes this quite feasible by giving the accented syllables generally higher pitches. The final phrase is the piece de resistance of this little work; out of a homophonic phrase-beginning emerges a system of imitation in descending half-notes, six entries in less than two measures, on C, F, and B-flat. The beauty of this passage rests in the stepwise descending half-notes, which move through dissonances--every other note is a passing note (off the beat, approached and left by step). Ordinarily passing notes might be sung a little more lightly than the surrounding consonant notes, but in such passages as this, I take the opposite approach--I ask the singers to lean into the passing notes slightly, making their connection to the preceding and following consonances direct and smooth. This enlivens the passage and clarifies its contrapuntal structure.
There is an interesting question of musica ficta. Renaissance performance practice requires unwritten accidentals to be supplied according to rules, one of which is that an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, especially with the lowest sounding note, should be made perfect. This seems to be the case in m. 12, where the E-natural in the bass comes against a B-flat in the tenor. But if the E is flatted in the bass, then so must the E in the alto be flatted, and the resulting sonority has always seemed to me to be somewhat alien. The rules do allow such a diminished interval if it is resolved correctly, and that may be the case here. I have experimented with every possible way of avoiding this diminished fifth, and have found none that is satisfactory, and thus have retained the questionable interval; at this point I have become quite accustomed to it and have no objection to it.
The text is, of course, a standard text for Benediction. If the congregation sings Tantum ergo, then it is quite suitable for the choir to sing O salutaris hostia. This text is the fifth stanza of St. Thomas Aquinas's Verbum supernum prodiens, the hymn for Matins of Corpus Christi. La Rue's setting comprises the text of only one stanza. This lasts about a minute and a quarter. I have added the conventional second stanza, the doxology of the original hymn, which gives a piece lasting two and a half minutes.
When this piece is sung well in tune and with a stable rhythm, it can have an extraordinary effect upon the listeners; it is not the effect of stunned surprise or exaltation, but rather of being turned to true devotion and adoration.
William Mahrt is editor of Sacred Music and president of the CMAA. email@example.com
(1) Josqph A. Jungmann, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, 2 vols, tr. Francis A. Brunner, C.SS.R (New York: Benziger, 1955), II, 214-17.…