Schubert’s Ave Maria – the Real Story

music miscellany May 28, 2013

It’s wedding season again, and time to dust off all the tried and true ceremony music, from the Pachelbel Canon in D to the Mendelssohn Wedding March. And surely at least once this season, there will be the beloved Schubert Ave Maria.

I have always considered this an interesting wedding selection. Without question the music is sublime, and it makes a lovely setting for the medieval Latin Prayer to the Virgin. But Schubert didn’t originally intend it to be.

Schubert’s inspiration was the epic poem of Sir Walter Scott, The Lady of the Lake, written in 1810. The poem tells the fictional tale of 16th century Scottish clans at war with each other and in rebellion against the king. Schubert wrote a cycle of seven songs based on the story, using the German translation of the poem by Philip Adam Storck.

The heroine of the poem is Ellen Douglas who has fled with her exiled father to a mountain cave to escape the pursuit of a rebel chieftain. While in the cave, Ellen sings a song praying to the Virgin Mary for help, accompanied by the harper Allan-bane.

This is the original text of Sir Walter Scott:

Ave Maria ! maiden mild !
Listen to a maiden’s prayer !
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banished, outcast, and reviled—
Maiden ! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child !
Ave Maria !
Ave Maria ! undefiled !
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem with down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;
Then, Maiden ! hear a maiden’s prayer,
Mother, list a suppliant child !
Ave Maria !
Ave Maria ! stainless styled !
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled:
Hear for a maid a maiden’s prayer,
And for a father hear a child !
Ave Maria !

Schubert’s setting of Ellen’s song used Storck’s German translation of this text. The entire song cycle was published in 1826 as “Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts Fräulein vom See” (Seven Songs from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake). What we know as the “Ave Maria” is titled “Ellens dritter Gesang” (“Ellen’s Third Song”).

The text we more commonly hear, and what is sung at weddings, is the original Latin text, which in English is:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
Mary, full of grace,
Mary, full of grace, Hail,
Hail, the Lord
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed,
Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Thy womb, Jesus.
Ave Maria!

That’s just something to think about during those wedding ceremonies this season!

Note: I have just published a set of three arrangements of Schubert’s Ave Maria. There is a very simple lever harp arrangement in C Major, an intermediate lever or pedal version in G Major, and a slightly more difficult pedal harp version, also in G Major. I use this pedal harp version myself, and my students have had success with each of the others. You can find these arrangements available for purchase and download at Enjoy!

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