This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of our parish magazine.
Although widely chosen as an anthem to be sung at weddings, the words of Panis Angelicus were originally written by St Thomas Aquinas for the feast of Corpus Christi. The text has been set to music by a number of composers down the centuries, but the best known is probably the 1872 arrangement by Cesar Franck for tenor (higher male voice), cello, harp and organ:
Panis angelicus May the Bread of Angels
fit panis hominum; Become bread for mankind;
Dat panis cœlicus The Bread of Heaven puts
figuris terminum: All foreshadowings to an end;
O res mirabilis! Oh, thing miraculous!
Manducat Dominum The body of the Lord will nourish
Pauper, servus et humilis. the poor, the servile, and the humble.
Te trina Deitas You God, Three
unaque poscimus: And One, we beseech;
Sic nos tu visita, That You visit us,
sicut te colimus; As we worship You.
Per tuas semitas By Your ways,
duc nos quo tendimus, lead us where we are heading,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas. to the light that You inhabitest.
The meaning of the text is really quite straightforward for Christians. We simply ask that the Bread of Angels – Jesus – miraculously represented to us by the bread and wine, nourish us spiritually. It is an inclusive request – the poor, the humble and those that serve each get a special mention. We go on to ask that Jesus is with us as we worship him, to guide us by his light along our faith journey.
I don’t know why, but the second verse is often not sung. Instead, the first verse is sung by a soloist, and then repeated either by a full choir with appropriate harmonies, or with a second soloist singing at the same pitch as the first, but in canon (that is, repeating the words and notes of the first voice, but a few beats later). Alternatively, a soloist will simply sing through the first verse twice.
The most moving performance of Panis Angelicus that I have heard was a few years back at St Margaret’s. Joan Lane and her husband Brian were celebrating their Golden wedding anniversary by renewing their wedding vows, and Becky Ginn sang this anthem. It was utterly sublime.
You can hear the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing a ‘canon’ arrangement of Panis Angelicus here. Hopefully, it will not be too long before we hear it again at St Margaret’s.