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About the Music of "Panis Angelicus" by Three Composers

"Panis Angelicus" is the Latin translation of "Angelic Bread" or "Bread of Angels." It is derived from "Sacris solemniis," to be precise, utilizing the penultimate strophe. This hymn was crafted by Saint Thomas Aquinas as a complete liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi. It also included "Liturgy of the Hours" and prayers for the public.    

Bread & wine at church


This particular strophe starts with the text "Panis Angelicus" and has been utilized several times as an individual musical setting separate from "Sacris solemniis," the original hymn. Saint Thomas' work for Corpus Christi was quite popular back then, with multiple hymns utilized separately for music. 'Pange lingua gloriosi" and "Verbum supernum prodiens" are two such hymns. However, the most famous version now is the work of César Franck. In 1872, this acclaimed Belgian composer set this strophe separately for organ, cello, harp, and voice. He incorporated his work into "Messe à trois voix," his Capella.

Musical Overview

"Sacris solemniis" is considered to be a sacred Latin work, and "Panis Angelicus" is the most notable version among all such contemporary Latin texts. In the 17th century, a Portuguese Renaissance composer named João Lourenço Rebelo crafted one of the earliest known arrangements.  

"Sacris solemniis" mostly focuses on "transubstantiation," a miraculous procedure through which the "blood and body" of Christ gets converted into "wine and bread" of the communion. The same alludes to the very first line of "Panis Angelicus." Later, notable Romantic composers Camille Saint-Saëns and André Caplet crafted their own unique arrangements from the text. However, César Franck's setting is the most popular among the renditions.

César Franck

The Belgian composer has created some intoxicating music over his lifetime, brimming with glorious, inventive melodies, and "Panis Angelicus" will remain high on that list. It has been recorded at least a hundred times. Franck's version still remains the most famous, securing his immortality. 

From the intricate symphoniques for orchestra and piano to the glorious "Violin Sonata in A," the journey through his creation is simply mesmerizing. He utilized a "solo tenor" for the melodic lines, accompanying it with serene string chords and a comparatively restrained organ. César Franck also included "Panis Angelicus" in his "Mass for Three Voices." However, there remains some ambiguity behind this fact. He completed "Panis Angelicus" in 1872, which is 12 years after the creation of "Mass for Three Voices." So, this inclusion is heralded as a belated event.

Franck was precariously talented, equally adept as both a concert pianist and composer. He was best known for creating a thematic density and technical significance, which emotionally engaged the audience. Although he did follow a familiar path of utilizing sacred literature for liturgical occasions, his iteration of exaggerating the text stands out. His accentuation of the texts through melody is truly a piece of art, for example, the usage of the words "poor humble servant" (pauper, servus et humilis). 

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns, the brilliant composer famous for his symphonic poems, had also created his own rendition of "Panis Angelicus" for organ and SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass). His work on this motet was first published in "The Church Anthem Book," in 1933. His version offers a simple yet haunting melody, appealing equally to both the secular and the sacred connotations of the text. He was truly a master of organs, a virtuoso improviser who, extraordinarily, mastered every field he ventured into. He was an organist, pianist, poet, playwright, philosopher, and essayist on ancient music. He also worked as a scholarly critic and editor of musical compositions.   

André Caplet 

André Caplet is primarily known for his orchestrations of Claude Debussy's work. The French composer became a close friend of Debussy, also doubling as his translator. Although Caplet's work has been criminally underrated, especially his use of instrumental voices. His delightful works on string and harp quartet and other symphonic studies are often overlooked. He also worked on several religious texts. His rendition of "Panis Angelicus" for organ, harp, cello, violin, and mezzo-soprano was exuded its very own captivating aura. In June 1919, his version made its first appearance, where he had utilized harmonium as the base organ. His piece has an approximate duration of four minutes and uses the rich "A-flat Major," albeit at a quite moderate tempo. In the end, the choir joins the party, collaborating with the solo soprano and re-performing the previous melody. The final act offers a brief solo "Amen," followed by a chorus of the same. 

Correlating the Motet

César Franck's version emphasizes on particular words and has multiple verses that are repeated. His entire piece is also repeated, albeit supplemented by the "choir." The melody is accompanied by words, accentuating the sublime message the original Latin text intended. There's an almost palpable, claying sensual sweetness.      

Saint-Saëns's version has a slightly slower tune, which picks up a moderate pace towards the end. The motet was designed for organ and choir, but with piano accompaniment. Caplet's version uses a harmonium, as it embarks into a stunning unfolding of scales. It subsequently follows up with a solo voice, whose melody also follows a similar scale pattern.

Caplet's "first progression" follows a conventional route, modulating until it reaches a chromatic bridge. There's a brief third act that creates a "crack-of-dawn" effect as the melody subsequently goes through a brief flourish before closing off with a peaceful, intimate ending.  

Usage in Popular Culture

"Panis Angelicus" has multiple recordings that include both female and male artists. Eminent stars have worked on this - from Renee Fleming, a Grammy award-winning American opera and soprano singer to Andrea Bocelli, the Italian classical singer-songwriter and tenor. John McCormack, the famous Irish tenor, was noted for his work on breath control and diction in operas. Another Irish composer, Chloe Agnew of the famed band "Celtic Woman," has also crafted her own modern version of "Panis Angelicus" for the album titled "Walking in the Air." There are numerous modern-day iterations, where choirs regularly perform this very famous composition. 

"Panis Angelicus" truly offers a mixed portrayal of liturgical works. It doesn't put a foot wrong and doesn't overexpose itself through elaboration. The astute composition, the suave simplicity, and the utterly ardent sentiment make it one of the most enduringly motets.


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