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Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod)

posted May 12, 2013, 3:32 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Jul 2, 2015, 1:27 PM ]
As a young music student, Charles Gounod revered Bach as the “master of masters”. So for an exercise, he superimposed a melody for violin or cello over the “Prelude No. 1 in C major” from Book I of J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, which Bach had composed 137 years earlier. When his fiancee's father heard this improvisation, he urged him to perform it publicly, and by 1853 it was published as Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach

Eventually, Gounod decided to set words to his melody, and the first text he chose was Alphonse de Lamartine's poem Le livre de la vie (“The Book of Life.”) The poet had written it for a female admirer. Gounod sent his musical version to one of his students, who happened to be married. Her mother-in-law, feeling the sentiment was inappropriate, sent it back to him with the alternate text of the Ave Maria written beneath his text. Gounod took the hint, and by 1859, this version was published. 

Like Schubert's Ave Maria, this setting is also a contrafactum, meaning “its original text has been substituted for another without substantial change to the music.” And also like Schubert's, it's become a fixture at weddings, funerals and quinceañeras. (You can read more about Schubert's version on the Hymns page

To his chagrin, Ave Maria became Gounod's most famous work in his lifetime, even though he considered it too insignificant to even mention in his autobiography. Neither the harmony nor the idea for the text are his! So late in his career, he composed another setting of the Ave Maria, though it was for a four-part SATB choir, and it has never enjoyed the popularity of this version.