Monday, December 1, 2014

My Favorite Christmas Carols: Ave Maria.

Well folks, we've finally made it to December. It's that time of year for egg nog and revelry; five golden rings and mall Santas.

That's right - the Christmas season is upon us!

Believe it or not, I'm actually a big fan of Christmas. Sure, I can be a grumpy Scrooge this time of year, but I can also be festive and friendly. That's just my nature! Hot one moment, cold the next. Billy Joel gets me.

Whether you celebrate the season in a religious or secular manner (or a little bit of both), one of the best aspects of Christmas is the music. Such beautiful melodies have been written for this season. This month, I want to highlight different songs that I truly enjoy.

The first song I'm going to feature is Ave Maria. Though the content of the song as it is modernly presented is deeply religious, I enjoy it more for the sheer sound and vocal performance. Unbeknownst to most, Ave Maria actually originates from Austrian composer Franz Schubert. He wrote the original as part of his Opus 52 in 1825, which recants Sir Walter Scott's epic poem The Lady of the Lake. It was later popularized by composer and pianist Franz Liszt (my personal favorite) in 1837 and 1838. Below is a wonderful rendition of Liszt's arrangement of Ave Maria by master pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

Schubert originally wrote Ave Maria in German under the title Ellens dritter Gesang, which translates to 'Ellen's Song'. The meaning was much different than what we hear today. Because the first line of the song was 'Ave Maria', that's what it came to be more commonly known as. Many years after Ave Maria was first published, the Roman Catholic Church adapted Ave Maria to the Latin prayer which coincidentally shares the same name. I'll compare the two texts for you below.

Ave Maria (Ellens dritter Gesang) - Original German Version

Ave Maria!
Jungfrau mild,
Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen,
Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild
Soll mein Gebet zu dir hin wehen,
Zu dir hin wehen.
Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen,
Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind.
O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen,
O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria
Wenn wir auf diesen Fels hinsinken
Zum Schlaf, und uns dein Schutz bedeckt,
Wird weich der harte Fels uns dünken
Du lächelst, Rosendüfte wehen
In dieser dumpfen Felsenkluft.
O Mutter, höre Kindes Flehen,
O Jungfrau, eine Jungfrau ruft!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria!
Reine Magd!
Der Erde und der Luft Dämonen,
Von deines Auges Huld verjagt,
Sie können hier nicht bei uns wohnen
Wir woll'n uns still dem Schicksal beugen,
Da uns dein heilger Trost anweht;
Der Jungfrau wolle hold dich neigen,
Dem Kind, das für den Vater fleht!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria - Latin Prayer Version

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Maria, gratia plena,
Maria, gratia plena,
Ave, Ave, Dominus,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris (tui),
Ventris tui, Jesus.
Ave Maria!

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Ora, ora pro nobis;
Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Nunc et in hora mortis,
In hora mortis nostrae.
In hora, hora mortis nostrae,
In hora mortis nostrae.

Ave Maria!

As you can see, the Latin prayer version is much shorter with less lyrics. That's why so many of the words are drug out when this version is sung. The music was originally written for more words!

The lyrics aren't the only thing that differs between the two versions of Ave Maria. If you were to translate the original German, you'd discover a song about a desperate woman facing certain death. It's based on the tale of the Lady of the Lake -- Ellen Douglas. Along the shore of Loch Katrine in the Scottish Highlands, Ellen is calling out to the Virgin Mary for help. A rebellion army is climbing the mountain she's sought refuge with her outcast father. Surely, they are to perish in a forthcoming climactic battle. Yet, the Roman Catholic Latin prayer version removes this context entirely. In its place is an ode to the Virgin Mary in blissful worship.

No matter which version you prefer, Ave Maria is elegant, heart-wrenching and deeply passionate. I consider it one of my most favorite of all Christmas Carols. Hopefully, you now feel the same. Below are two fantastic versions of the song, both in the original German and adapted to the Latin prayer.

Maria Callas - Ellens dritter Gesang

Michael Bublé - Ave Maria

And yes... I like Michael Bublé. So sue me. ;-)

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