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Ave Maria (Schubert)

posted May 13, 2012, 7:24 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated Sep 24, 2015, 8:26 AM ]
One of the most popular songs to honor Mary, our heavenly mother, is the
Ave Maria.  But Franz Schubert never really composed one…

In 1825, Schubert composed a cycle of seven songs from Sir Walter Scott’s popular epic poem The Lady of the Lake.  Describing a fictional 16th century struggle between Scottish Highland clans, a young heroine – Ellen – is forced to hide in a mountain cave with her exiled father; rather than join the rebellion against King James.  When the frightened girl hears the distant warriors approaching, she sings a prayer to the Virgin Mary, calling upon her for help and comfort…

Ave Maria! Maiden mild! Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild; Thou canst save amid despair…

Titled Ellens dritter Gesang, Op. 52, No. 6, (Ellen’s Third Song) it’s believed the opening line inspired the idea of adapting Schubert’s popular song as a setting for the full text of the traditional Roman Catholic prayer to make it suitable for church services.  As a result, this Latin version is used so frequently that a misconception has arisen that he originally composed the melody specifically as a setting for the prayer.

Walt Disney used it in the final part of Fantasia, arranging it for soloist and mixed chorus, yet with a different text to the Virgin Mary written by Rachel Field.  (Like most of Schubert’s songs, the original was scored for just voice and piano.)  And there is at least one additional set of lyrics of this “Hymn to the Virgin;” although less widespread in use, this set received some attention due to its use as the theme song for the Hitman: Blood Money video game.  

Schubert refers to the initial reaction of his own masterpiece in a letter to his father and step-mother:

My new songs from Scott’s Lady of the Lake had much success.  They wondered greatly at my piety,
which I expressed in a hymn to the Holy Virgin and which, it appears, grips every soul and turns it to devotion.