César Franck’s beautiful short piece, “Panis Angelicus,” seems to epitomize all that is good about December, while serving as good therapy against those manic bouts of mandated (and teeth-gritting) good cheer. You hear the opening notes and your shoulders unclench; your thoughts slow. Your ears prick up in order to catch every beautiful note.
I first heard César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” in December when my husband and I were living in London. While holiday shopping, I picked up a compilation CD entitled “Sacred Songs for Christmas,” drawn by the fact that some of the songs and carols were new to my American ears. Back home, I gave the CD a listen and instantly fell smitten. Since then, I’ve forever associated “Panis Angelicus” with that delicious, soulful evening (admittedly, wine became involved). London’s darkened afternoons, so different from California, seemed to have made that time of the year more sacred and fleeting than what I’d previously experienced. In truth, despite the grey, overcast skies, the frequent drizzle, I’ve never enjoyed a December holiday season more. It all comes back to me whenever I hear this recording of “Panis Angelicus.”
I’m Catholic, so I celebrate Advent, and this beautiful short piece seemed to epitomize all that is good about December, while serving as good therapy against those manic bouts of mandated [and teeth-gritting] good cheer. You hear the opening notes of “Panis Angelicus” and your shoulders unclench; your thoughts slow. Your ears prick up in order to catch every beautiful note. The words are in Latin, so there’s nothing to reject if you’re not religious. You simply listen to the music and allow it to transport you. I’m going on two decades of listening to this CD during the holidays and its magic is enduring. In fact, give it a listen yourself, and then we’ll talk.
I hear you telling yourself that you don’t have time right at this moment to stop and listen to this, particularly since the first one starts rather slowly, somber organ music, the camera panning over the interior King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. You do have the time. In fact, you need this more than you realize. (And if you’re not religious and the setting and the organ are making you feel stressed out, scroll down to the second version. I find the orchestral opener to be particularly lovely.)
Set down those things in your hands and take a seat. This is holiday therapy. Sit there and watch and take a deep, cleansing breath and listen to all 3 minutes and 43 seconds. You will thank me for it.
And here is an orchestral version with a mezzo soprano soloist. To my incredulous joy, I found the very one that is on the CD I bought over twenty years ago. The soloist is Renata Tebaldi. I was searching for options on YouTube and I felt like Prince Charming looking for the maiden who fit the glass slipper. So many hyped-up, sugared-up versions of this piece, as it turns out. No, wrong. Ick, no. No, no, no, no [et cetera], YES!!! This version is stunning. I will never tire of it.
I suppose I should share a few words of history about Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” (translation: “Bread of Angels”). It’s a verse, written by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, from the hymn “Sacris solemniis” in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Belgian composer César Franck (1822-1890) was not as high profile a composer as many of his peers; I’d never heard of him prior to “Panis Angelicus” but I loved it so much, I sought out more of his music, and now his Symphony in D Minor is a perennial favorite of mine. The symphony, surprisingly, has a mixed reputation—masterpiece or a bomb? It’s a topic and composer worthy of a dedicated blog, so we’ll save the rest for another time.
Interesting factoid: In June 1968, “Panis Angelicus” was performed at the Requiem Mass for the late Robert F. Kennedy, and in August 2009, Plácido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma performed the piece at Senator Edward Kennedy’s Requiem Mass. I’m certain there wasn’t a dry eye in the church, either time. And yet, such beauty. “Bread of the Angels.” What a perfect name.
Wishing all my readers a happy holiday season. Well. A rich season, because “happy” is extremely subjective, and frequently elusive during this “season of cheer.” Instead, I’ll wish for you a season interspersed with pockets of space for yourself to enjoy that which is sacred (to you). I myself enjoyed an Advent Mass last Sunday at the lovely, soulful Holy Cross Catholic Church in Santa Cruz (highly recommended!) and today, Thursday, I leave for four days of silent retreat at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center. (Also highly recommended!) On Saturday I will celebrate the winter solstice amid the ancient redwood groves that fill the 20-acre Center, and when I get home on Monday night, I will light up the menorah and make latkes for the family in honor of my husband’s Jewish heritage. Christmas Eve Mass and a Christmas Day at home, with my family, will culminate the festivities. It will be just the three of us—mild activity, mild temps outside. Out here in California, land of mild winters, I have to say, this is a beautiful, precious, sacred time of the year for me. Lucky me, huh? But in the meantime, in all the rush and stress and frayed nerves of the season, I will take a few minutes each day to listen to “Panis Angelicus” and just breathe.
Join me, will you?
PS: Want to know the words of “Panis Angelicus” and their translation? Here you go!
Fit panis hominum
Dat panis coelicus
O res mirabilis
Servus et humilis
May the Bread of Angels
Become bread for mankind;
The Bread of Heaven puts
All foreshadowings to an end;
Oh, thing miraculous!
The body of the Lord will nourish
the poor, the poor.
Republished with gracious permission from The Classical Girl (December 2019).
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The featured image is “The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel” by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.