SCHUBERT-BACH-GOUNOD-STARR; Ellen's Song (Ave Maria,) for soprano, violin, cello and piano

By: Franz Schubert
For: Voice + keyboard
page one of SCHUBERT-BACH-GOUNOD-STARR; Ellen's Song (Ave Maria,) for soprano, violin, cello and piano

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Franz Schubert
Year of composition
Sir Walter Scott
Moderate (Grades 4-6)
6 minutes
Classical music
License details
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This is a unique arrangement of Schubert's Ave Maria, his best known song and still his most widely performed composition. Many (if not most) of the those listeners who have heard this song sung in Latin to the text of the Hail Mary prayer from Catholic liturgy are unaware that those words are not the text for which Schubert composed this beautiful music. Nor are those Latin words a translation of the German text that Schubert employed. In fact, those Latin words, taken from liturgy, were grafted by an anonymous hand onto Schubert's melody many years after the composer's death. It is in this unauthentic hybrid form that Schubert's melody has become world famous. Schubert never heard his song sung in Latin to the prayer that is the recitation of the rosary.

His composition was first published in 1825 under the title: Ellen's Gesang, III (Ellen's Song, No. 3.) The subtitle was "The Hymn of a Young Maiden." It is listed as Opus 52, No. 6 - and now is catalogued as D. 839. Schubert was then 28 years old (it was three years before his untimely death from syphillis.) The text was a poem by the Scottish novelist/poet Sir Walter Scott. Schubert used a German translation of Scott's poem by Adam Storck.

Consequently, Ellen's song is not, strictly speaking, a sacred song - like the Ave Marias of Antonin Dvorak, Gabriel Faure, Joachim Raff, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, and Luigi Cherubini - or, the most famous Ave Maria of all, that by Charles Gounod. All of these works were set to the Latin text. Rather, Schubert's song is a dramatic scena, sung in the first person by Ellen Douglas, the persecuted heroine of Sir Walter Scott's classic novel, "The Lady of the Lake." The song has a story-line and a leading lady. This fact might make a considerable difference in the manner in which singers perform this song.

In Scott's poem, Ellen laments that she has been 'banished, outcast and reviled.' Pursued to the lake in the forest, she has gone into hiding in a 'cavern' in the 'wild,' where she sleeps upon a 'flinty couch' (i.e., upon the bare rocks.) Trembling with fear, she cries out in desperation to the Virgin Mary for protection against the elements. The only Latin words of the Catholic liturgy that Ellen utters are the first two: Ave Maria, which Schubert used both to open and to close his song.

It is interesting to note that an anonymous hand - presumably someone else's hand - did exactly the same thing to Jules Massenet's equally famous melody, known as the 'Meditation' from his opera 'Thais,' played in the opera by a solo violin. In 1896, Edition Heugel in Paris published a version of the Meditation in which the Latin text of 'Hail Mary' was grafted on to Massenet's celebrated violin solo, to be sung by a mezzo-soprano.

It is surprising that no one back then also published a version of the Torreador Song from Bizet's Carmen with the same text. The words "Ave Maria, Gratia Plena" fit very nicely to Bizet's famous tune.

In my arrangement of Schubert's song, I have restored the original text - but not in the German translation employed by Schubert, but rather with the original poem in English by Sir Walter Scott.

The musical problem with restoring Scott's poem is that it is in three stanzas - all three of which were utilized by Schubert. Thus, the entire song is repeated three times - whereas, when it is sung with the Latin words of the 'Hail Mary,' the song is sung only once. Schubert's accompaniment consists of only a guitar-like arpeggio that outlines the harmonies. This threadbare accompaniment quickly becomes very tiresome when repeated three times.

In making my arrangement, I decided to take a cue from Charles Gounod, who set his celebrated Ave Maria to an accompaniment fashioned from the Prelude in C Major from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Similarly, in the first stanza of Schubert's song, I have substituted an accompaniment to Schubert's melody based on Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude in C Major. In the second stanza, I have added a part for cello obbligato, fashioned from Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude from the Suite in G Major for solo cello. And in the third stanza, I have added a part for solo violin that presents in counterpoint to the vocal line some motives developed from Charles Gounod's Ave Maria. Thus, here we have an arrangement that is a fusion of music by Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Gounod,and yours truly - set to the English poem of Sir Walter Scott.

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