Ave Marias have long been sung as part of choral Christmas concerts. And that is no surprise, for they can be lovely works of high art. Perhaps it is the devotion that many feel for the Virgin that inspires composers to create such beautiful music for this ancient text. Here is a prime example from the 16th century, and one of my favorites.
The Ave Maria prayer has been part of the liturgy from the earliest centuries of the Church, and many, such as Victoria, have drawn directly from its venerable melody.
But the emphasis of the Christmas season is on Christ, so how did these Marian pieces come to be? The roots can be found in the Christmas story itself. The opening line of the prayer is from Luke 1:28, the greeting by which the angel Gabriel saluted Mary at what has come to be called the Annunciation, or the announcement that she would bear the Christ:
Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum
Hail, Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you
According to Ron Jeffers’ Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, volume I, this portion of the chant dates back to the 6th century, and was first used as a devotional greeting to Mary, accompanied by some sort of gesture of homage. Later, in the 8th century, it began to work its way into worship services during Advent, as part of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.
The second line also comes from Luke chapter 1, verse 42, Elizabeth’s joyful proclamation as the baby in her womb, later known as John the Baptist, also miraculously conceived, leaped upon hearing the voice of Mary:
benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
It is first referred to as part of established liturgical practice in the 12th century writings of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The last section, a petition for intercession, had apparently been a part of this prayer for several centuries before finally codified for liturgical use by Pope Pius V in 1568.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
These gradual accretions coincided with the flowering of polyphonic music beginning about 1400, and a genre was born. An ongoing genre, for the bench is deep when it comes to finding Ave Maria settings, ranging from Josquin to Schubert to the present
Here is one of the most popular of 20th-century settings, Biebl’s Ave Maria, sung by one of my favorite ensembles, Chanticleer.
Master Chorus Eastside is contributing to the tradition by singing a modern Ave Maria by University of Washington professor Giselle Wyers. I wish there was a YouTube of Giselle’s work, for it is stirring and passionate. Her Ave Maria begins very softly, with chant-like repetitions of “Ave”, and then moves short, repetitive melodic cells, sometimes of just a single word, across a backdrop of long-held chords that gradually shift and turn in ever-changing choral color. Like a slow-moving wave it builds to an almost-climax at “benedictus fructus ventris tui,” then falls back at “Sancta Maria,” rising through the “nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” to the true, ardent climax at “Amen.” Then it settles through a small cascade of descending Amens to close in quietness and peace.
It is a great privilege to sing a work of such beauty. If you can, take in a holiday concert, ours or another chorus’s, especially if it contains an Ave Maria. For then you walk in the footsteps of the ancients.
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside