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Ave Maria

Summer 2023

Ave Maria by Franz Schubert The sublime composition known as Ave Maria by Franz Schubert was originally entitled, in the German, Ellens Gesang III, Jäger, ruhe von de Jagd, or Ellen’s Third Song, Huntsman, rest thy chase is done. This work was composed by Schubert in 1825, and published in 1826, as part of his Op. 52, a collection of seven songs from The Lady of the Lake. That narrative poem was written by Walter Scott in 1810. It consists of six cantos, each section covering the action of a single day. The Lady of the Lake was primarily composed in octosyllabic tetrameter couplets, thereby granting it an already rhythmic quality. Additionally, this lengthy poem is chocked full of Gaelic history (always a mainstay with Scott) to tell, once more, the acclaimed legend of the dignified and lovely feudal heroine, Ellen Douglas, in the 16th century.

The tale, set in the Scottish Highlands, chronicles the abject banishment and the glorious restoration of the noble Douglas family to their ancestral isle. The Scottish English text by Scott, rendered as lyrics for “Hymn of the Virgin”, are clunky, at best; awkwardly blunt, at worst; and they utterly fail to inspire any of the grace and tranquility intended by the serene music. It was perhaps with the sensibility of divine grace in mind that these lyrics became Latinized as a prayer, the Hail Mary of the Roman Catholic church. The purist in me finds the juxtaposition of the Schubert melody with Latin lyrics more than a bit off-putting. The generous flow of the Latin does not mesh with the carefully timed, but less fluid, purity of the precision of Schubert’s melodic line. Certainly, this piece is much easier to sing in Latin: a clear bell-like voice, especially one with an angelic timbre and without a vibrato, can simply, but majestically, float atop those lovely, long open vowels and not become bothered, at all, by dealing with the pesky and stifling tone-breaking and blocking effects of consonants!

(The Bach/Gounod Ave Maria in Latin is the truly transcendent version of this exalted entreaty, even if the original 1853 publication has French lyrics. The 1859 version in Latin has become the vastly preferred and popular version. And it has become clear to me that nothing remains simple or pure, as in unadulterated, where the lyrics of a prayer to Mother Mary are concerned.) The Schubert Ave Maria is a euphonic supplication, intoned by the young woman named Ellen, to the Virgin Mary. The setting is Verse XXIX from Canto Three of The Lady of the Lake. It was originally translated into the German by Adam Storck (1780-1822) to form a part of Schubert’s Liederzyklus vom Fräulein, Song cycle of the Fräulein. Schubert was an incredibly prolific composer, of many forms, lieder being one of his favorite shorter structures. He most liberally “borrowed” from the poems of myriad poets to pen his lyrics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Rückert, Wilhelm Müller.

In the Sir Walter Scott poem, Ellen Douglas, the Lady of the Lake, or Loch Katrine, has journeyed with her exiled father to stay in the cave of the Goblin because her father has chosen to not join their previous host, Roderick Dhu, in rebellion against King James. The plot becomes more emotionally entrenched, as Roderick Dhu, the chieftain of Clan Alpine, advances with his warriors up the mountain in an obvious case of battle fever. Roderick, however, lingers a moment, just long enough to hear the distant sound of the harpist Allan-bane. This musician accompanies Ellen as she sings a prayer to the Virgin Mary, beseeching her Mother for help. Roderick Dhu pauses his mission-march to listen to this tender supplication. He then goes off to his battle to reclaim Ellen’s Isle (Eilean Molach) on Loch Katrine, the stronghold of Clan McGregor. One can readily sense the plaintive urgency suffused into this song by Schubert when he composed it in 1825; within three years, he would die.

Franz Schubert typically wrote each piece with a specific voice in mind, sometimes a male, at other times a female. I believe, however, that, judging from how he treated sopranos, Schubert really didn’t care too much for the human instrument: he composed for his primary love, the piano. That secondary instrument, the human voice, has to rigorously bend to accommodate this dominant instrument, the keyboard, which tonally reigned supreme in the heart, mind, and soul of Schubert. Perhaps this unspoken predilection is why I find the instrumental version of his Ave Maria more calming, consoling, and celestial than a vocalized one. Schubert nearly always composed his songs to German texts which then became lyrics. All but the fifth song within this seven-song setting of Op. 52 were to be published with the original texts. The chase of the translator-huntsman for precise and rhythmical lyrics was arduous when the time came to procure correct but nuanced versions of the translation by Storck. He used enormous poetic license in his literal and literary transformations of foreign languages.

In what remained of his lifetime (about three years), Franz Schubert gained an astounding, and quite out-of-the-ordinary, recognition for his masterpiece. Unlike most of his other musical pieces, Ellens Gesang III, Jäger, ruhe von de Jagd received publication before the death of its composer, and the money didn’t exactly come rolling in to Franz. He’d already written his own Swan Song — Schwanengesang — 14 songs composed in 1828, and published posthumously in 1829. I’ve always felt that his Ave Maria is his most sincere and ardent swan song.

Schubert - Ave Maria

Ave Maria! Jungfrau mild, Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen, Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen. Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen, Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind. O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen, O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind! Ave Maria! Ave Maria! Unbefleckt! Wenn wir auf diesen Fels hinsinken Zum Schlaf, und uns dein Schutz bedeckt Wird weich der harte Fels uns dünken. Du lächelst, Rosendüfte wehen In dieser dumpfen Felsenkluft, O Mutter, höre Kindes Flehen, O Jungfrau, eine Jungfrau ruft! Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! Reine Magd! Der Erde und der Luft Dämonen, Von deines Auges Huld verjagt, Sie können hier nicht bei uns wohnen, Wir woll'n uns still dem Schicksal beugen, Da uns dein heil'ger Trost anweht; Der Jungfrau wolle hold dich neigen, Dem Kind, das für den Vater fleht. Ave Maria!


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