Gounod's Ave Maria

music miscellany May 15, 2016

Charles Gounod


"My mother wants the Ave Maria played. Does it work on the harp?" asks the bride-to-be.

So, I play her a few bars of the famous Schubert song.

"No, that's not it," says the bride.

"Oh, you mean the other Ave Maria," and I play her a few bars. Happy bride, happy harpist.

It's the other Ave Maria, the melody that composer Charles Gounod wrote as an embellishment to a prelude written over a hundred years before by Johann Sebastian Bach, and commonly referred to as the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria.

There are some interesting similarities that the Bach/Gounod and Schubert Ave Maria settings share. They have a similar texture with long melodic lines set to delicately arpeggiated accompaniment. Each evokes a calm, reflective mood. And interestingly neither was originally a sacred piece, nor was either intended to be. I wrote about Schubert's Ave Maria in a previous post. Read on now for the unusual story behind Gounod's melody. Gounod credited Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn with increasing his appreciation, understanding and passion for the works of Bach. Gounod was introduced to many of Bach's keyboard works by Fanny who impressed him with her "great gifts and wonderful memory." Later Gounod visited Felix Mendelssohn at his home in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn played a private organ concert of Bach's music for him.

But it was about 10 years later, as Gounod was improvising at the piano, that the now-famous melody was born. Gounod was simply improvising a melody to Bach's famous Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Klavier. Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, Gounod's future father-in-law, heard Gounod at the piano and rushed into the room asking Gounod to play it again so that he could write it down. Zimmermann later transcribed it and arranged it for a small ensemble to play.

The melody, with Bach's Prelude as the accompaniment, was published in 1853 as "Meditation on the First Prelude of Sebastian Bach." A later published version included words, a poem called "Vers écrits sur un album," (Lines written on an album) by Alphonse de Lamartine, a short poem about the book of life. Gounod later changed the text to the traditional Latin text of the Ave Maria prayer.

If you will be performing the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, here are a few practice tips:

  • Shape the melody with thought and care. Listen to a vocal recording to match your phrasing to the phrasing of the text. Strive for a beautiful legato and a warm, rich sound.
  • Make sure your left hand arpeggios are clean, even and noiseless. The accompaniment should have a smooth and calm feeling.
  • Practice your lever or pedal changes so that they are quiet and smooth and don't interrupt the melodic flow.
  • Use rubato musically and with understanding. Practice with a metronome also to be sure that you don't have unintended rubato.

Gounod never considered the Ave Maria among his greatest accomplishments, but it has turned out to be one of his most beloved compositions. The simple expressive melody speaks deeply into the soul of the listener. It's difficult to imagine that anyone could listen and be unmoved.

And that single work puts the lie to these words by one nineteenth century music critic:

"Mr Gounod's music is too learned and complicated.  It's a symphonist's music where skill sparks all the time, but inspiration is lacking.  Mr Gounod has no melodic gift.  The music does not move because it does not sing ."


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