6 Beautiful Versions of Ave Maria

Ave Maria Best Version
Ave Maria Best Version

I expect you may have already come across the two main words of the title Ave Maria and know their meaning. However, to make sure all t’s are crossed and i’s dotted, allow me to explain.

Ave Maria is Latin, and it is a traditional Christian prayer that praises and petitions Mary. It is often referred to as the Hail Mary, adopted as a prayer notably in the 16th Century by the Catholic Church.

Ave Maria Best Version

1. ‘Ave Maria’ (The Lady Of The Lake) by Franz Schubert D.839

There is many setting of the Ave Maria, with the most famous being by Franz Schubert. As breath-taking as this setting is, it is not a setting of traditional prayer. It is a setting of a Walter Scott poem from 1810 titled ‘The Lady of The Lake’.

Schubert set seven of these for his Op.52, with this song in sixth place. (‘Ellens Gesang III’). The essence of the narrative is Ellen, the Lady of The Lake, who has gone to a goblin’s cave with her father, who is in exile.

Ellen sings a prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking for her salvation amid such despair. The purity and simplicity of this setting by Schubert perhaps contribute to its enduring popularity.

It is almost not to be moved by such a sensitive, expressive piece of music, elegantly created and timeless.

2. ‘Ave Maria’ by JS Bach/Charles Gounod

Another song with a controversial background. As you might surmise from the title, there are two composers involved in the composition of this work.

If you have listened to the link above before reading this text, you might already be thinking that that is not Gounod, and in some respects,  you would be correct.

What is going on here is the JS Bach ‘Prelude in C Major’ from his equally famous ‘Well-Tempered Klavier’ (BVW 846), with Gounod’s melody superimposed on top.

Two versions of this piece exist, one with French text (1853) and the other in Latin (1859). The latter became an extremely popular version for Gounod, who just improvised this enchanting melody over the Bach Prelude.

Gounod intended the composition to be a solo voice and piano, but there have been many arrangements of this exquisite work, including one by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and American singer Bobby McFerrin.

3. ‘Ave Maria’ by Felix Mendelssohn (Op.23; No.2)

Mendelssohn was a prolific composer, performer, and conductor. He may be better known for his symphonic works, a large collection of piano pieces, and concertos, but this early vocal work is profound.

From ‘Three Sacred Pieces’ dated around 1830, this setting is the second. They are each enchantingly written and perhaps show how devout a man Mendelssohn was.

This piece is scored for a solo tenor voice, chorus and organ. There is an intimate exchange between the soloist and chorus that gives a deep sense of earnest humility.

Texturally, Mendelssohn uses blocked-chords in the chorus that develops into an intricately crafted counterpoint in which Mendelssohn excelled. Here unlike the previous examples, this work genuinely sets the Latin text of the Ave Maria.

4. ‘Ave Maria’ by Camille Saint-Saëns

Saint-Saëns set the Ave Maria no less than five times during his lifetime. The first setting was in 1859 for baritone voice and organ. The last was in 1914 (Op.145) for mixed chorus and organ. The link above is to this final setting and is shown usefully with a score.

This setting was completed a few years before the composer’s death in 1921. I find transparency and innocence in this composition that effortlessly captures the meaning of the prayer.

Perhaps what we hear here is a composer at peace with himself, absent of the need to prove anything.

The organ that opens the work on a simple interval of a major third acts as harmonic support for the chorus, and it is the harmony that colours the words so subtly. For most of the setting the chorus sing in four carefully delineated parts, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

Interestingly this brief work forms a humble arch shape ending on the major third with which it began, then closing with a pure Amen. It is a striking work.

5. ‘Ave Maria’ by Anton Bruckner (1867)

In a similar vein to the composition by Saint-Saëns, this is a sacred motet. It also happens by good fortune to share the key of the Saint-Saëns; F major. Bruckner not only directed the Choral society at Linz Cathedral but from 1861, he was also the organist.

It was Linz Leidertafel who first performed this motet, and according to Bruckner, it was welcomed warmly, receiving great applause.

The scoring for this work is SAATTBB, which gives the overall sound warmth and depth that is not found in other choral ensembles. Bruckner was a devout Catholic all his life. His unshakable faith permeates this beautiful setting.

There is a gentle interplay between the upper and lower voices that underpins the meaning of the Latin text. The name of ‘Jesus’ receives three declarations from the unaccompanied chorus, bringing glory and majesty to the opening of the work.

In this short work, we hear Bruckner’s mastery of choral writing together with a knowing glance toward the masters of the past. Romanticism blends seamlessly with faith in this most illuminated setting of the Ave Maria.

6. ‘Ave Maria’ by Gabriel Fauré (Op. 93)

If sources can be relied upon to be accurate, French composer Gabriel Fauré

Composed four settings of the Ave Marie; one was published posthumously. The composition I am highlighting is Op.93 in B minor, scored for two soprano voices and an organ.

With Fauré’s skillful use of modes mixed with the faint hues of impressionism, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to part of Fauré’s famous and celebrated ‘Requiem’. This four-minute setting of the Ave Maria is of equal importance, in my opinion.

Fauré’s captivating music so calmly gives the words a luminescence that perhaps this piece deserves more frequent performances than it receives. The message of the prayer travels straight to the soul in this setting of Fauré’s and is a brilliant testament to his genius.     

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