The Many-Faced Ave Maria: From Schubert to Bruckner

In today’s video, we’re going to be taking a look at the popular composition Ave Maria. It’s one of those works that was born from an old prayer, and has many different incarnations. Different composers transform the words into different sounds and tunes.

Probably the most famous iteration of Ave Maria is by Schubert, though his doesn’t follow the old text except for a few words. Other versions exist, notably by Liszt, Gounod and Bruckner – all of which we’ll take a closer look at and listen to examples of.

First off, though, we’re going to talk about where the Ave Maria originated, and even listen to a traditional Gregorian chant version of it.

Original ave maria text

“Ave Maria” is Latin for “Hail Mary”. It’s used in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and many other Christian and Lutheran branches.

The Western version of Hail Mary as we know it today originates from about the year 1050, and has completely different origins than the Greek version (which we’ll also look at). It evolved over the course of hundreds of years.

Here is the Latin and English version of the prayer:

    Áve María, grátia pléna,

Dóminus técum.

Benedícta tū in muliéribus,

et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus.[10]

Sáncta María, Máter Déi,

óra pro nóbis peccatóribus,

nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen.

In English:

    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 Holy Rosary

This is an extremely common prayer in Western Christian traditions, and is a big part of why it’s been set to music hundreds of times over the last thousand years.

One use of the Hail Mary is by saying it 150 times as per the rosary – there are 150 beads, and thus 150 repetitions of the prayer. The idea of this is to get a person in a deep meditative state, kind of like chanting.

Eastern Christian use In Greek tradition

The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic version looks like this:

God-bearing Maid, rejoice, grace-filled Mary, the Lord with thee. Praised thou among women, and praised the fruit of thy womb, because it was the Saviour of our souls that thou bearest.

(The music we’ll be listening to today is based on the Western version of the prayer, though other composers have used the Eastern version.)

Traditional Latin Gregorian chant

Let’s take a listen to a traditional Latin Gregorian chant of Ave Maria. Gregorian chants are a Medieval style of Western music, and are entirely a capella (voice only, with no accompaniment).

Back in the day, musical “rules” like key signatures and rhythm didn’t really exist, so Gregorian chants are written in what we call modes. That’s part of the reason they sound so different from anything modern (or even anything from the Baroque period in the 1600s).

Video credit:

English: Ave Maria from Gregorian Vespers in honor of Saint Vincent Pallotti (Vesperae de Confessore non Pontifice) recorded by Schola Gregoriana from Pallottine Seminary in Ołtarzew, Poland, conducted by father Dariusz Smolarek

Source: Schola Gregoriana

License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria

Let’s start with Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, by far the most famous version. This work is actually from a larger collection of seven pieces, op. 25, based on the epic poem “The Lady of the Lake”.

In this setting, the song is called Ellens Gesang III (Ellen’s third song), and is the sixth in the set. It was composed in 1825.

The thing about Schubert’s Ave Maria is that it opens with those words, but otherwise bears no resemblance to the original prayer (unlike the other versions we’ll discuss below).

Since this work has been recorded and performed so many times, it’s also been altered and changed a lot – there are versions with different lyrics, for example (including the original prayer lyrics). Liszt also arranged three versions of Schubert’s Ave Maria for piano.

The Lady of the Lake

In the context of The Lady of the Lake, the character Ellen is hanging out in a goblin’s cave with her exiled father. Meanwhile there’s a battle going on, and another character named Roderick Dhu hears Ellen singing a prayer to the Virgin Mary (Ave Maria).

So the song itself does relate to the original Latin prayer, but the context for it is very different. People often think that Schubert did write the tune to correspond fully with the prayer, but those are different versions that weren’t written by him. Other people took his tune and made it fit to the traditional prayer words.

Now if we take a quick listen to the altered version, you’ll notice it’s virtually identical – but the text has been changed to the original Latin prayer of Ave Maria. Schubert didn’t write this version, but this version is extremely common – so much so that people think that Schubert intended it that way.

Audio credits:

Schubert’s original version:

Performed by Dorothea Fayne (vocal) and Uwe Streibel (Piano)

License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

An altered version to the Latin text:

Performer: Bradley Chapman

License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Ave Maria in pop culture

Schubert’s Ave Maria has been used many times in the media and pop culture, most notably in the film Fantasia (which has tons of great Classical music).

It was performed at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, and it’s been in TV shows from Supernatural to Community to Bob’s Burgers.

Franz Liszt

The famous composer Franz Liszt was a deeply religious man, so much so that he almost became a priest (he took the orders but never completed the training). So it’s no surprise that he made various versions of Ave Maria.

His first version was written in 1846 – this was when he was at the peak of his Rockstar-dom in Europe, touring and performing extensively. It was written for 6-part mixed chorus (SSATTB), with organ.

Usually when we talk about Liszt it’s in the context of his piano music, so it’s fun to look at some of his choral works. You’ll notice his version features constant repeating of the text (saying Ave Maria a bunch of times before moving on to the next set of words), and is full of interesting harmonies and textures.

Audio credits:

Ave Maria I, S. 20

1st version (1846)

Performer: Papalin

License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Liszt’s Second Version

His second choral version, from 1852, was written half a step lower, and for a smaller 4-part chorus (SSTB), with organ. At this point Liszt was getting more involved in writing religious and choral music. Even though this recording is simple and fairly conventional, I think it sounds a little more mature than the earlier version.

Audio credits:

Ave Maria I, S. 20

2nd version (1852)

Performer: Papalin

License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Liszt and Schubert

Liszt also had a fondness for transcribing works by other composers to the piano, something he did with Schubert’s Ave Maria. Valentina Lisitsa does a great version of it on YouTube you want to check it out.

Charles Gounod

Though Liszt’s versions of Ave Maria are less well-known, another very famous setting of this prayer is by Charles Gounod. The reason for this is because he uses Bach’s famous Prelude in C major as the accompaniment, to which he superimposed the Ave Maria on top of.

Gounod’s version was originally published in 1853 and was titled, Meditation sur le Premier Prelude de Piano de S. Bach.

Bach’s original prelude was written in the Baroque period (almost 150 years before Gounod adapted it), and people were probably familiar with the tune at the time since Baroque music was making a comeback.

The melody was originally conceived via improvisation (ie Gounod made it up on the spot), but was later transcribed for a string instrument (violin or cello) with piano accompaniment.

Just like Schubert’s Ave Maria, you’re probably familiar with this version because of pop culture, weddings and/or funerals. It’s been arranged, rearranged and performed many times since its conception.

Audio credits:

Ave Maria

Performer: John Michel

License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Anton Bruckner

The final composer we’ll look at today is Anton Bruckner, who wrote three different settings to the Ave Maria. We’ll be looking at the second setting today, WAB 6.

It was composed in 1861 for seven unaccompanied voices (SAATTBB), and originally performed at the Old Cathedral in Linz, where Bruckner was the organist.

This motet is a call-back to Gregorian chants in that Bruckner uses modal chords and long phrases. Despite this, it still has Romantic-era qualities – the harmony is quite modern, and you’ll find more contrast here than in a traditional Gregorian chant.

Audio credits:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ave_Maria_(USNB).ogg

The second of his three settings

License: Public domain

Other composers

Many other composers wrote settings to Ave Maria that are just lesser-known. Good examples include Dvorak, Verdi and Brahms.

Eastern European composers also tackled the prayer, such as Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Vavilov.

In even earlier musical times, such as the 1500s (the Renaissance), you can find Ave Marias by Josquin des Prez and Palestrina, even though the text is often different.

conclusion

I hope you enjoyed today’s tour of Ave Maria. I think it’s neat that there are so many incarnations of this popular prayer, especially by hugely influential composers.

Until next time!

xo,

Allysia