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Classics on Sunday: Ave Maria

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TWO of the most beautiful pieces of music I know are based on the same Roman Catholic prayer, the Ave Maria or Hail Mary. This is it:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The prayer incorporates two greetings to Mary in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’ and ‘Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’. The petition ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen’ was added later and first appeared in print in 1495 in the Renaissance martyr Girolamo Savonarola’s essay on the prayer, Esposizione sopra l’Ave Maria.

The musical version which usually goes under the composership of Bach/Gounod originated in the Prelude No 1 in C major, BWV 846, from Book I of J S Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, published in 1722.

Here is the sheet music. (This one has a vertical line which moves on to each note as it is played, so you can soon start to make sense of it.)

In 1853 the French composer Charles Gounod slightly altered the melody and turned it into an arrangement for violin, or alternatively for cello. Here is a violin version.

A rendition by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin was used as the main theme in the 2017 Palme d’Or-winning Swedish film The Square.

In 1859, the Paris music publisher Jacques-Léopold Heugel brought out a version with the Latin text, and this is the one used today.

Here is Mario Lanza in the 1951 film The Great Caruso:

And here is baritone Bryn Terfel, with an orchestral accompaniment.

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Like the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, the Schubert version used today is some way from its origins.

It started life as Ellens dritter Gesang, or Ellen’s Third Song, which Franz Schubert wrote in 1825 as part of his Op 52, a setting of seven songs from Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake which had been loosely translated into German. The opening words are ‘Ave Maria’ but the rest are quite different. Here is the first verse of Scott’s poem, called Hymn to the Virgin:

Ave Maria! Maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild;
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Schubert wrote it as a song for solo soprano and piano, and here is a recording by the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling (b 1933).

In 1837 Franz Liszt arranged the piece for solo piano. It is a technically very demanding work, and as you can see from this sheet music it looks as if the player needs three hands.

I can’t find out who changed the Walter Scott words to those of the Latin prayer. Maybe several people had the same idea.

Probably its most famous outing was in the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, in an orchestration by Leopold Stokowski. It was the final segment of the film and was intended to convey hope in wartime.

The English words were written for the song in the film by the American author Rachel Field. She wrote three verses based on the prayer, but only the last was used:

Ave Maria!
Heaven’s Bride.
The bells ring out in solemn praise,
for you, the anguish and the pride.
The living glory of our nights, of our nights and days.
The Prince of Peace your arms embrace,
while hosts of darkness fade and cower.
Oh save us, mother full of grace,
In life and in our dying hour,
Ave Maria!

I found an interesting 2015 article by Jay Gabler, who says that the Ave Maria segment arrived at New York’s Broadway Theatre only four hours before the premiere.

He writes: ‘It was one of the most ambitious shots in animation history – it was the longest single shot ever animated up to that date  – and completing the shot, which involved moving a multi-plane camera through a cavernous soundstage full of illustrated panels, became a comedy of errors. First the crew used the wrong lens, then there was an earthquake – and they kept having to stop work so that the boss could use the soundstage for his badminton games. In the end, though, all the work paid off: the shot is a transcendent conclusion to a landmark film.’ You can read the piece in full here. 

Here Stokowski conducts a performance by the mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson made in 1944 for American troops fighting in Europe.

Finally, as a comparison with the Bach/Gounod version, Mario Lanza sings the Schubert one in the 1956 film Serenade.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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