There’s something about Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria that stirs my soul every time I hear it. It’s quite commonly heard at both Christmas and Easter, particularly among those of Roman Catholic faith. Of course, it is Schubert’s version and, to a lesser extent, the one attributed to Bach and Gounod with which I’m most familiar. Imagine my surprise and, later, my sheer delight, on learning there are, in fact, several settings of the “Ave Maria”.
Why so many, and how did they come about?
From a humble prayer …
It makes sense to look first at the lyric, or, rather, the humble prayer at the origin of the myriad musical interpretations. To do that requires a brief understanding of the Vulgate, or Biblia Vulgāta, a Latin translation of the Bible dating from the late fourth century. Still used by the Roman Catholic Church today, the Vulgate became the officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible during the 16th century. It is on this version that countless of the songs in existence today are based:
39 Exsurgens autem Maria in diebus illis, abiit in montana cum festinatione, in civitatem Juda:
40 et intravit in domum Zachariæ, et salutavit Elisabeth.
41 Et factum est, ut audivit salutationem Mariæ Elisabeth, exsultavit infans in utero ejus: et repleta est Spiritu Sancto Elisabeth:
42 et exclamavit voce magna, et dixit: Benedicta tu inter mulieres, et benedictus fructus ventris tui.
39Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, 40and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!Luke 1:39-42, New King Jame Version (NKJV)
To quote Scripture is not the intent of this post, however, so suffice to say simply that the prayer—and the subsequent lyric—derive from the following:
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus fructus ventris
Ventris tuae, Jesus.
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Ora pro nobis
Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Nunc et in hora mortis
Et in hora mortis nostrae
Et in hora mortis nostrae
Et in hora mortis nostrae
Full of grace,
Mary, full of grace,
Mary, full of grace,
Hail, Hail, the Lord.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Thy womb, Jesus.
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Pray, pray for us;
Pray, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death,
And at the hour of our death
And at the hour of our death,
And at the hour of our death
Other versions covered in this article include those by
- Vladimir Vavilov
- Edward Elgar
- Giuseppe Verdi
- Pietro Mascagni
- Gaetano Donizetti
- Johannes Brahms
- Luigi Cherubini
- César Franck
- Igor Stravinsky
- Anton Bruckner
- Franz Liszt
… to quintessential elegy, aria and hymn
Franz Schubert’s “Ellens dritter Gesang”
Interestingly, Schubert did not title his 1825 composition “Ave Maria” but, rather, “Ellens dritter Gesang”, or “Ellen’s Third Song”. Part of his Op. 52, a setting of seven songs from Walter Scott’s popular narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, “Ellens Gesang III”, is one of Scubert’s most popular works and arguably the best known of all songs hailing the Virgin Mary.
It’s a misconception that Schubert originally wrote the melody as a setting for the full text of the above prayer. The idea may likely have come instead from the opening words and refrain of Ellen’s song, namely “Ave Maria”.
Consider the full context of Scott’s poem, which centers on titular character Ellen Douglas, the Lady of the Lake. Because he declined to join in rebellion against King James, Ellen’s father is exiled. Choosing to join her father and now forced into hiding, a frightened Ellen sings a humble Catholic prayer (in German) to the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Christian God.
Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach
Another well known and widely recorded version of “Ave Maria” is the 1853 version originally published as Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach. In this work, French Romantic composer Charles Gounod superimposed his improvised melody over a slightly modified version of the Prelude No. 1 in C major, BWV 846, from Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, published in 1722.
Alongside Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, the Bach/Gounod version is a fixture at funerals, wedding masses, and quinceañeras and has been recorded countless times, as has the aria by Russian Vladimir Vavilov.
Vavilov himself published and recorded his aria “Ave Maria” in 1970 on the Melodiya label. It became known worldwide in 1987, when organist Oleg Yanchenko made an arrangement for a recording by Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Arkhipova. Note that in the embedded video below, the piece is incorrectly ascribed to Giulio Caccini: it’s thought that organist Mark Shakhin, one of the performers on the Melodiya recording, attributed the work to Caccini after Vavilov’s death in 1973.
One cannot stress enough the risk posed Vavilov’s great reverence for the Virgin Mary at a time when the creation of religious works was criminal under communism. Russia in the 1970s was still part of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and Soviet Marxist-Leninist policy consistently advocated the control, suppression and elimination of religious beliefs, while actively encouraging Marxist-Leninist atheism instead. It’s thought that Vavilov, fearing aggressive anti-religious persecution, had no choice but to cite Caccini as the composer.
English composer Sir Edward William Elgar’s Roman Catholicism was viewed with suspicion in Protestant Britain. In fact, his 1900 work The Dream of Gerontius caused some concern in Britain’s Anglican establishment. Moreover, Michael Kennedy, Elgar’s biographer, when describing Elgar’s wife Caroline Alice Roberts, wrote: “Alice’s family was horrified by her intention to marry an unknown musician who worked in a shop and was a Roman Catholic. She was disinherited.”
An organist at St. George’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester, Elgar composed “Ave Maria” in 1887, dedicating it to Mrs. Hubert Leicester, wife of the church’s choirmaster. Leicester, in grateful acknowledgement, responded:
You cannot realise how pleased my wife was at your kind thought of her, and you know that I am more than pleased […] The farther we travel from the old days and the old associations, the dearer they become. There must be many pieces among your ‘archives’ that would, if published, be hailed with delight by the Catholics.
Passionate and reflecting the full spectrum of emotions behind the above prayer, Elgar’s “Ave Maria” features a lilting melody set to a lush, intense accompaniment.
Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello
When Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi transformed William Shakespeare’s Othello into the opera Otello, he did not obsess over copying every detail from the play but, rather, achieved his aims by pushing the boundaries of authenticity. Creating something that is simultaneously artificial and truthful, Verdi’s aria “Ave Maria” is sung by heroine Desdemona in the scene just before she is murdered. Praying for all who suffer as she does, Desdemona makes a powerful argument that goodness and love can triumph even in the most nightmarish of circumstances. It is all for naught, however, as, in the end, neither survives Othello’s mistreatment and seething jealousy. In the last key moment in the last act , Othello murders his wife in her bed.
“This scene,” says American composer, conductor and music commentator Robert Kapilow, “is spectacularly, inappropriately inauthentic Shakespeare, yet it couldn’t be more true to the heart of what it’s about.”
Although the libretto deviates from the above prayer, it is nevertheless an impassioned plea to the Virgin Mary.
Ave Maria, piena di grazia, eletta
Fra le spose e le vergini sei tu,
Sia benedetto il frutto, o benedetta,
Di tue materne viscere, Gesù.
Prega per chi
adorando a te si prostra,
Prega nel peccator,
E pel debole oppresso
e pel possente,
tua pietà dimostra.
Prega per chi sotto l’oltraggio piega
La fronte e sotto la malvagia sorte;
Per noi, per noi tu prega, prega
Sempre e nell’ora della morte nostra
Prega per noi, prega per noi, prega.
Ave Maria …
Nell’ora della morte.
Ave! … Amen!
Hail Mary, full of grace, chosen
among wives and maidens art thou,
blessed be the fruit, o blessed one,
of thy womb, Jesus.
Pray for the one who
kneels in prayer before you,
pray for the sinner,
for the one who is innocent,
and for the weak and oppressed,
and for the mighty,
show thy mercy.
Pray for the one who bows his head
under injustice and under misfortune;
for us, pray thou for us, pray
ever and in the hour of our death,
pray for us, pray for us, pray.
Hail Mary …
in the hour of our death.
Hail! … Amen!
Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
Otello is not the only opera to feature a prayer to the Virgin Mary. Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana opera addresses the themes of love and jealousy in similar fashion. Adapted from an 1880 short story of the same name, the opera takes place in a Sicilian village right around Easter. In one scene, the villagers move about the main square, singing of the beautiful spring day, and a hymn, “Ave Maria”, serves as an interlude between this scene and the next.
Ave Maria, madre Santa,
Sorreggi il piè del misero
In sul cammin del rio dolor
E fede, e speme gl’infondi in cor.
tu che soffristi tanto,
Vedi, ah! Vedi il mio penar.
Nelle crudeli ambasce
d’un infinito pianto,
Deh! Non m’abbandonar.
Ave Maria! In preda al duol,
Non mi lasciar, o madre mia, pietà!
O madre mia, pietà!
In preda al duol,
Non mi lasciar, non mi lasciar.
Hail Mary, holy Mother,
Guide the feet of this wretched one
who implores thee
Along the path of bitter grief
And fill the heart with faith and hope.
O merciful Mother,
thou who suffered so greatly,
See, ah! see my anguish.
Ah! Do not abandon me
To the cruel torment
of endless weeping.
Hail, Mary! Oppressed by grief,
Do not leave me, O Mother, have mercy!
O Mother, have mercy!
Oppressed by grief,
Do not leave me, do not leave me.
Best known for his nearly 70 operas, Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti was a leading composer of the bel canto style of opera during the first half of the 19th century. His close association with this style undoubtedly influenced other composers, including the aforementioned Verdi. Although best known for his operas, Donizetti was a prolific composer, writing music in a number of other forms, including some church music, a number of string quartets, some orchestral pieces and a number of choral works, including “Ave Maria”.
Composed in 1858, Johannes Brahms’ “Ave Maria”, along with the contemporaneous Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13, represents the composer’s first published attempt at combining vocal and instrumental music. Written for women’s voices and orchestra, it’s based on folksong-like models.
Italian composer Luigi Cherubini’s “Ave Maria” is originally scored for soprano, clarinet in C, two violins, viola, cello and bass accompaniment.
Belgian-French Romantic composer and organist César Franck’s works are characterized by chromatic harmonies and skillful use of counterpoint. With its serene, meditative vocal line and restrained accompaniment, Franck’s 1863 ”Ave Maria” expresses the composer’s own Roman Catholic devotion.
Originally published using the Slavonic title Bogoroditse D’vo, “Ave Maria” by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is a 36-bar work for chorus written in 1934. There are few differences between the piece with Slavonic text and the one with Latin text. Most notably, because it was rearranged to adapt better to the natural cadence of the text in Latin, it tends to be longer. At the end of the piece, the choir also sings “Amen”, absent from the Slavonic version.
Anton Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” is a short work in F major for seven unaccompanied voices. It was composed in Linz in 1861 and published in Vienna six years later.
Franz Lizst, whose own religious interests guided him to the Ave Maria text, is one of few composers who took it on multiple times. The first, Ave Maria I, S20, was written in 1846. Written for eight-part choir and organ, the setting actively changes in its texture, moving from solo voices to full choir, culminating in the final meditative “Amen”.
In Rome during the 1860s, Lizst retreated to a monastery outside the city in late 1862. That year, he once again took on the Ave Maria in a work entitled the Grosse theoretisch-praktische Klavierschule. Also known as Die Glocken von Rom (The Bells of Rome), the piece starts simply, but, as Maureen Buja writes, “[it] soon challenges the player to keep the melody distinct from the accompaniment. By the end of the work, the player is faced with challenges in performing at both ends of the keyboard.”
Eight years later, in 1870, Lizst took up the Ave Maria again in a work scored for four-part mixed choir and organ, for solo voice and organ, and for piano alone.
Lizst wrote one more original Ave Maria in 1881. This final take was written in two versions: one for solo voice and piano, and the other for piano alone. “It’s almost as though this final Ave Maria encompasses all those that have gone before condensed into a final simple statement,“ Buja writes. “Its beauty and quiet close leave us thoughtful and longing for that final closing chord.”
Although this article expounds a number of settings of the “Ave Maria”, this is, by no means, an exhaustive list. Quite the contrary! As part of a project spanning 15 years, soprano and producer Andrea Chudak collected hundreds of compositions from throughout music history, from Gregorian Chant to arrangements of successful popular songs. Of the over 200 works she compiled, Chudak selected 68 “Ave Maria” for a five-CD set, the first time that this varied and diverse repertoire has been presented on record.
The 68 selections as chosen by Chudak, writes Michael J. Hardern of the Operetta Research Center, give “a striking overview of a repertoire that is almost impossible to grasp in its entirety […] With these new compositions, the thousand year history of text adoption once again acquires new dimensions, opening up very individual possibilities of interpretation.”
It would seem, or at least it is my hope, that this description also applies more broadly to the information presented in this article.
You can listen to the aforementioned setting of the “Ave Maria”, including the five volumes of Andrea Chudak’s “68 Ave Maria”, in on Spotify.
Were you aware so many version of “Ave Maria” exist? Of those described, which is your favourite? Drop a comment below.
Buja, Maureen. 2015, December 9. Lizst and the Ave Maria. Interlude. https://interlude.hk/liszt-ave-maria/
Hardern, Michael J. 2020, April 22. Robert Stolz At The Vatican. Or: 68 Versions Of “Ave Maria”. Operetta Research Center. http://operetta-research-center.org/robert-stolz-vatican-68-versions-ave-maria/