Songs in search of words, poetry in search of music, or songs without words? Bach-Gounod or Schubert?

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Which of these two ever-popular Ave Marias do you like better: the mis-named Schubert (sometimes called “the most beautiful song ever written”, here “live” with Jessye Norman and here with Barbara Bonney) or the chameleon-like Bach-Gounod (we still can’t find any that seriously rival Maria Callas’s rendition)?

While we have not been performing, we have been thinking about songs and song-inspired piano music.  And we do love two of the most popular classical music songs, both called the Ave Maria, the Bach-Gounod and the Schubert (and the piano transcription of this latter is almost as famous as the sung version – Lazar Berman’s rendition still a favourite of ours).  It is really very difficult to decide which of these we like better, let alone which version … (here’s more on the Schubert-Liszt connection).

The Bach-Gounod originated as a piano piece (the first Prelude in J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier Book 1) to which Charles Gounod added a “descant” melody above Bach’s famous arpeggios, which then went through quite a few instrumental versions as well as a vocal version (with a French text) before an inspired text was added, that of the Catholic prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary asking for her intercession on behalf of sinners, “Ave Maria”, a well-recognised (and Latin) text, hence bringing it within the tradition of many other Ave Marias.  This was published in 1853, some 137 years after Bach wrote his original Prelude, and has become one of Gounod’s most famous works, with transcriptions, adaptations and arrangements for almost every ensemble imaginable.

The other, Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, was originally written to the German translation of Sir Walter Scott’s poem set in the Scottish Highlands, “The Lady of the Lake”.  “Ellen’s Third Song” did contain the words “Ave Maria” but only in reference to the prayer itself, and the “Ellen” mentioned in the German title was Ellen Douglas, who was the primary character and heroine of Scott’s poem that was based on the legendary romance, with regard to the Arthurian legend.

This Ave Maria –  not written with religious practices or the church in mind – was one of a small number of Schubert’s works that was published before his death: considered a master-piece even during Schubert’s lifetime, it was published in 1826.  Soon after, that great virtuoso-pianist-composer-conductor-transcriber Franz Liszt, who transcribed many Schubert songs (of a total of around 150 songs Liszt transcribed for the piano, about one-third were Schubert’s), made a most memorable piano transcription of the song (here’s yet another beautiful rendition); Robert Schumann considered Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert to have introduced

a new style in the school of piano playing”!

Religious or not, the Bach-Gounod seems these days a “staple” in vocal Christmas recitals or CD compilations, while the Schubert is forever immortalized in Walt Disney’s 1940 movie Fantasia.  Schumann, for his part, had his song Widmung from his Op.25 song cycle in turn also transcribed by Liszt in a version that can probably be said to be even more popular than its original (a very popular encore piece in piano recitals, here played as an encore by one of today’s young virtuosi).  Liszt for his part often writes the song’s words in the score next to the notes in the melody-line in the piano transcriptions.  The “new school” of pianism is this inheritance of songs without words (but with the words silently, poetically and very much present). 

Liszt is very much an expert on the possibilities of the piano for songs, and just on the Ave Maria, he made 2 vocal settings, while also composing 2 pieces titled Ave Marias for the piano (we “paired” one of the piano settings with one of the 4-part mixed-voice vocal settings in our 2018 concert (here’s more details on these various settings on Interlude).


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