Behind the Song: Ave Maria

Franz Schubert composed the popular Catholic hymn in 1825, as part of his Opus 52.  He titled the song “Ellens dritter Gesang” or Ellen’s Third Song.

Philip Adam Storck translated and published the poem Lady of the Lake into German in 1819.  This was the inspiration for Schubert’s work.

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

The song was composed as a setting for Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake.  In the poem Ellen Douglas is the character known as the lady of the lake.  Ellen, who is travelling with her exiled father, sings a prayer to the Virgin Mary calling upon her help and comfort in the rebellion between her Scottish clan and King James. She and her father are hiding in a cave at the time she sings this prayer.

Many of Sir Scott’s words contain references to the Latin Prayer, Ave Maria.

Schubert’s arrangement is believed to have been performed for the first time at the Austrian castle of Countess Sophie Weissenwolff and dedicated to the Countess.  For this reason she became known as the “lady of the lake.”

The opening words of the song are Ave Maria, which means Hail Mary, may have led to the adapting of Schubert’s work to the full text of the Roman Catholic church prayer Ave Maria.  “The Latin version of the Ave Maria is now so frequently used with Schubert’s melody that it has led to the misconception that he originally wrote the melody as a setting for the Ave Maria.”

Both the German and English translations were published in 1826 as Schubert’s Op. 52, under the title Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts Fräulein vom (Seven Songs from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake).  Schubert was paid 20 pounds sterling for his work and it became a success.

Mary, Mother of JesusSchubert wrote to his father and step-mother, “My new songs from Scott’s Lady of the Lake especially had much success. They also wondered greatly at my piety, which I expressed in a hymn to the Holy Virgin and which, it appears, grips every soul and turns it to devotion.”

Schubert died in 1828, at the age of 31, but lived to see his song considered a masterpiece.

Walt Disney used the song in the final part of his 1940s Fantasia, and provided a wide audience for the musical work.

The song has become one of Schubert’s most popular works.  The song is usually referred to as Schubert’s Ave Maria to differentiate from the traditional Catholic text. The adapted Latin is the version most often performed today and continues to move audiences.

For the origins of the original Ave Maria click here.


The original lyrics to Sir Walter Scott’s poem:

Ave Maria Lyrics 

Ave Maria! 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 banish’d, 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 this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast 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!

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