The origin of the chief Catholic prayer to the Mother of God is a direct quote from the Archangel Gabriel, which can be found in the Bible in Luke chapter 1 verse 28, when he descends from heaven and appears to the Virgin Mary, telling her she has been blessed to carry the lord, Jesus Christ, within her womb. The prayer’s nebulous evolution began nearly 1,000 years ago and likely took 500 or more years to reach its current form.
Ave Maria Latin Text
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
Ave Maria English Translation
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and in the hour of our death. Amen.
Famous Ave Maria Songs and their Composers
No matter what religion you practice or whether or not you are religious at all, the Ave Maria is one of the most recognizable and well-known prayers throughout the western world; its content has inspired leagues of composers and musicians to write some of their most beloved works. Just to give you an idea, here are a few of the most famous Ave Maria compositions that you’ll likely hear many times throughout your life:
In 1853, French composer, Charles Gounod improvised a melody to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Piano Prelude No. 1 in C Major, which Bach published in 1722 as part of The Well-Tempered Clavier — a book of piano music Bach wrote to sell to students interested in learning and perfecting their piano technique. Gounod’s work was originally published for violin/cello with piano and harmonium, but in 1859, after receiving a request from Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann (Gounod’s future father-in-law who transcribed Gounod’s improvisation) Jacques Léopold Heugel released a vocal version with the melody set to the text of the Ave Maria prayer.
Mascagni’s Ave Maria is an adaption of his beloved Intermezzo (a piece of music performed between two scenes or acts in an opera) from the opera, Cavalleria Rusticana.
In 1825, Schubert composed “Ellens dritter Gesang” (Ellen’s Third Song) and included it in his collection of seven songs titled Liederzyklus vom Fräulein vom See (The Lady of the Lake). Schubert based his work on Walter Scott’s similarly titled epic poem. Schubert’s original published score for this song was not set to the Latin prayer despite its opening phrase “Ave Maria.”
Stravinsky was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, but in his young adult life, his religious practices were “put on hold” so to speak. It wasn’t until he returned to the church that he wrote a series of three motets intended for use within the orthodoxy (The Lord’s Prayer (1926), Credo (1932), and Ave Maria (1934). Stravinsky composed all three works in Slavic text, then fifteen years later, after moving to the United States, he republished the works with Latin texts.
This sublime aria is sung in the fourth act of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, “Otello”, by Desdemona. Knowing she may die that evening at the hand’s of Otello’s, Desdemona asks her servant Emilia to prepare her wedding gown with instructions to bury her in it in case she dies that evening. After Emilia leaves, Desdemona prays to Virgin Mary, asking her to pray for the sinner, the weak, the oppressed, the mighty, the unfortunate, and for them in the hour of their death.