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About Gounod's "Ave Maria"

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Title Composer Description View or Listen Date Posted
Ave Maria (Meditation sur le Premier Prelude de S. Bach)

Gounod

Cello (or violin) and piano, with optional cello 2 or organ.
The original 1853 version, before it became "Ave Maria".

Complete score

mus  pdf  mid  mp3  xml    2012-08-22
Violin part
(melody)
mus  pdf    xml 2012-08-22
Cello part
(melody)
mus  pdf    xml 2012-08-22
Cello 2 part mus  pdf    xml 2011-02-10
Organ part mus  pdf    xml 2012-08-22
Piano part mus  pdf    xml 2012-08-22
Horn in F
(melody)
mus  pdf    xml 2012-08-22

Composer: Charles Gounod and J. S. Bach

Title: "Ave Maria"

Performance Notes

At least two players are required: a pianist, and someone to play the melody. The melody may be played by violin, by cello, by horn, or by any other melody instrument. Optionally, you may also include either the organ or Cello 2, but probably not both. (The horn part is not in Gounod's score.)

Charles Gounod, 1859 Click to enlarge (392kb)

History

Charles Gounod’s famous “Ave Maria” is a curiosity in music history—a musical collaboration between two great composers whose lives did not overlap.  It is a song whose melody was written 130 years later than its accompaniment!

Bach's Prelude in C

In 1722 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) published Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier.  The first piece in that collection is the “Prelude in C major”, BWV 846, studied by all piano students since Bach’s time.  The 35 measures of the Prelude consist of 34 measures of 16-th-note arpeggios followed by one measure containing a single whole-note C-major chord.  The work is characterized by richly inventive harmony; and by frequent dissonance, including minor-second intervals.

The Mendelssohns, Gounod, and Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1748 Click to enlarge (76kb)

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) revered Bach as the "master of masters".  In 1840, Gounod met Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn's sister, and became a close friend of Fanny and her husband.  She was influential in introducing some of Bach's keyboard works to Gounod.  Gounod wrote that Fanny "would sit down to the piano with the readiness and simplicity of one who played because she loved it. Thanks to her great gifts and wonderful memory, I made the acquaintance of various masterpieces of German music which I had never heard before, among them a number of the works of Sebastian Bach—sonatas, fugues, preludes, and concertos—and many of Mendelssohn's compositions, which were like a glimpse of a new world to me."

Later, Felix Mendelssohn invited Gounod to Leipzig and played some of Bach's organ works for Gounod in a private concert in the Thomaskirche where Bach had been choir master.  In his autobiography, Gounod thanks the Mendelssohns for deepening his appreciation and understanding of Bach's music.

Gounod's espièglerie

Gounod spent many evenings in 1852 at the Paris home of his fiancee Anna Zimmermann.  Anna’s father was Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann (1785-1853), a pianist and composer who had taught for many years at the Paris Conservatory.  One evening Zimmermann overheard Gounod improvising a beautiful melody over Bach’s Prelude in C.  Zimmermann hurried into the room where Gounod was playing and asked him to play the piece again.  As Gounod played, Zimmermann wrote the melody down in musical notation.  A few days later, Zimmermann organized a house concert at which Gounod was present and the piece was performed by a violin, piano, and small choir.  Was Gounod a performer, or only a listener?  We don’t know, nor do we know who prepared the voice parts—they may have been composed by Gounod, Zimmermann, or someone else.

Publication of the "Meditation"

Alphonse de Lamartine, 1856 Click to enlarge (57kb)

The work appears to have first been published in 1853 under the title “Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Sebastian Bach” (“Meditation on the First Prelude of Sebastian Bach”).  This edition, which I have re-typeset and published on this Daisyfield.com website, has a solo violin part, a piano part based on Bach’s Prelude (but slightly altered), and an optional organ part.  The title page says that the violin part may be played by a cello, presumably, an octave lower than the violin; indeed, there was a documented 1854 performance in Paris by cellist Adrien-François Servais (1807-1866).  The 1853 edition also contains an optional second cello part to use if no organ is available.  One thing notably missing from this first edition is a song text.  The original work is a “meditation”, not a song!

Words by Lamartine precede the "Ave Maria" text

In fact, Gounod set words to his melody only later, possibly not until 1859.  Interestingly, the first text that Gounod chose was not "Ave Maria", but the short poem, "Vers écrits sur un album", by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869).

Vers écrits sur un album
By Alphonse de Lamartine


Lines written on an album
By Alphonse de Lamartine
Translated by Tom Potter

Le livre de la vie est le livre suprême
Qu'on ne peut ni fermer, ni rouvrir à son choix;
Le passage attachant ne s'y lit pas deux fois;
Mais le feuillet fatal se tourne de lui-même;
On voudrait revenir à la page où l'on aime,
Et la page où l'on meurt est déjà sous nos doigts.

The book of life is the supreme book,
That we can neither close nor reopen at will;
The endearing passage will not occur twice;
But the fatal page turns by itself;
We yearn to revisit the page where we love,
And the page where we die is already under our fingers.
Translation donated to the public domain, Tom Potter, 2011

Lamartine had composed this poem as a gift for a young woman admirer.  Gounod selected it as the text for his "Meditation", and sent a copy as a gift to a married woman, Rosalie Jousset (1838-1863).  Rosalie was a beautiful singer, and Gounod’s student.  Gounod's letter containing the music was intercepted by Rosalie’s mother-in-law, Aurélie Jousset, who felt that the sentiment was inappropriate.  She sent the music back to Gounod with an alternate text written beneath Lamartine’s words, namely, the words of the Latin prayer “Ave Maria”.  Gounod took the hint, and adopted Aurélie Jousset’s suggestion. The first edition of the song with the “Ave Maria” text is dated 1859.

Assessment of "Ave Maria"

Gounod considered “Ave Maria” to be an insignificant part of his life's work, not important enough to mention in his autobiography.  Truly, "Ave Maria" seems a minor effort compared to works such as the opera Faust.  After all, it is a short work, with only the melody being Gounod’s.  The accompaniment and harmonic structure are Bach’s, and I think that some of the additional voicing embodied in the organ part may have been worked out by Zimmerman.  Finally, as mentioned above, the idea to use “Ave Maria” as the text for the song belonged not to Gounod, but to Aurélie Jousset.

But “Ave Maria” became Gounod’s most famous work during his lifetime, somewhat to his chagrin, and has remained so. It is played everywhere in church services and weddings, and hundreds of published arrangements exist.  Personally, I think that Gounod should have been proud of the loving reception the world has given to what he called his espièglerie ("little joke").

Text

Gounod's text:

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus, fructus ventris tui,
Jesus.
Sancta Maria, sancta Maria, Maria,
ora pro nobis, nobis peccatoribus
nunc et in hora, in hora mortis nostrae.
Amen! Amen!

Traditional Latin text

Ave, Maria, grátia plena,
Dóminus tecum.
Benedícta tu in muliéribus,
et benedíctus fructus ventris tui,
Iesus.
Sancta María, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatóribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostræ.
Amen.

English translation

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee,
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now, and at
the hour of our death.
Amen.

 

Remarks

Many conflicting accounts exist for the origins of Gounod's "Ave Maria".  The exact chronology is particularly hard to discern, so use the above account with caution.  For example, James Harding says that the probable date of the first performance of the "Meditation" was 10-April-1853.  However, the account in the website of Gounod's great-grandson Jean-Pierre Gounod suggests that the first performances were in 1852, and other evidence supports that.

See Also

This Daisyfield website has useful information and free downloads for the other great setting of "Ave Maria": Schubert's.

References

Bar-Shany, Michael, "The Roman Holiday of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel", in Israel Studies in Musicology Online, Vol. 5 (2006), No. 1, at http://www.biu.ac.il/hu/mu/min-ad/06/.  [Information about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's friendship with Gounod in 1840.]

Corleonis, Adrian, "Meditation on Prelude No. 1 of Bach, for violin or cello & piano with organ or cello ad lib.", article in the allmusic.com website.  [Probably the best short history of Gounod's "Ave Maria".]

De Musset, Alfred; de Lamartine, Alphonse de; Both-Hendriksen, Louise; Hugo, Victor; La triade française: De Musset, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, petit recueil de poesies, D.C. Heath, 1897, (198 pages). In books.google.com. [See p. 58 for text of Vers écrits sur un album.]

L'Echo de la fabrique, Journal Industriel et Littéraire de Lyons, Volumes 1-2, published by EDHIS, Paris, 1833, in books.google.com. [Issue No. 32, June 3, 1832, Page 7 has Lamartine’s poem.]

Gounod, Charles, Autobiographical reminiscences: with family letters and notes on music; trans. by W. Hely Hutchinson, W. Heinemann, London, 1896, (267 pages), in books.google.com. [See pp. 90-91 for Gounod's first meetings with Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.]

Gounod, Charles, "Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Sebastian Bach Composée pour Piano et Violon Solo ou Violoncelle avec Acc. d'Orgue ou d'un 2d Violoncelle", First edition (Germany), B. Schott's Söhne, Mainz, n.d.(ca.1853), Plate 12832 (8 pages). Downloaded January, 2011 from the Petrucci Music Library.  [This is the source for the Daisyfield.com edition of the score of Gounod's "Meditation".]

Gounod, Charles, "Ave Maria, Méditation über das 1. Präludium von Bach", unidentified publisher, Leipzig, not dated (circa 1910), downloaded from the Petrucci Music Library.  [Edition of Ave Maria transposed down from C to the key of F.  Contains lyric in Latin and in German.]

Gounod, Jean-Pierre, Charles Gounod, sa vie, son oeuvre, website www.charles-gounod.com, visited February, 2011.  [The personal website of a great-grandson of Charles Gounod. Contains much of interest, including stories passed down in the family.  In French, but with English translation available for most material.]

"Hail Mary - Wikisource", webpage with text of "Ave Maria" in many different languages, on the Wikisource website.

Harding, James, Gounod, Stein and Day, New York, 1973 (251 pages).  [See pp. 80-81 for "Ave Maria".]

Noske, Frits; and Benton, Rita; French song from Berlioz to Duparc: the origin and development of the mélodie, trans. Rita Benton, Edition 2, reprint, Courier Dover Publications, 1988, (454 pages). [First published by Dover, 1970, translation of French version published in 1954. See p. 179 for discussion of Lamartine’s poem as original text for Ave Maria.]

Whitehouse, Henry Remsen, The life of Lamartine, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918, Volume 2. p. 472.  [In books.google.com.  See p. 472 for the story of "Vers écrits sur un album".]

1748 portrait of J. S. Bach, via Wikimedia Commons.

1856 photo of Alphonse de Lamartine, via Wikimedia Commons, from Sobieszek, Robert A., Masterpieces of Photography from the George Eastman House Collections, New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. p. 95.

1859 Photo of Charles Gounod, By Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, whose source was: Huebner, Steven (1990). The Operas of Charles Gounod, plate 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780193153295. (original at Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

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