Email Q&A: Who wrote Ave Maria

Email question received:

I read quite a few articles on the internet but still not sure who actually first composed Ave Maria, despite so many name changes to the music.  I read that Bach, Schubert and Gounod were at least the three persons  associated with Ave Maria but separated by hundreds of years apart.  The music on Youtube and other places are the same for all three.  Can you tell me?

My reply:

First, here are some of my previous blog posts on the Ave Maria:

The most famous Ave Maria songs are by Schubert and Gounod. Gounod used the Bach Prelude in C Major as the background for his melody of Ave Maria. In other words, he put his Ave Maria melody to Bach’s music.

To my knowledge Bach never actually wrote an Ave Maria, he was a devout Lutheran, not Catholic. So the Gounod Ave Maria is called the “Gounod/Bach” Ave Maria.

Schubert’s Ave Maria is from a song cycle. At one point in the song cycle she is in trouble and prays to Maria. The song is that prayer. Usually when you hear an operatic vocalist sing Ave Maria it’s the Schubert version. Schubert’s original was in German, but people have put the Latin lyrics to it. And that’s usually the version you here sung, which is more appropriate for a liturgical setting.
I think on my blog I have the translation of the original German lyrics. (Here they are: )
Notes added to response after sender approved posting of question online:

In the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria the the Gounod melody is placed on top of JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major which is the first piece from The Well Tempered Clavier. Most piano students who take classical lessons (as I did) learn the Well Tempered Clavier book. The Prelude in C is accessible to younger grade players.
Working as a musician my whole life I have worked as musical director for several different church denominations and performances including Catholic presentations. For those not hip to the difference between Catholic and Protestant churches – in short one of the differences is in Catholicism the Virgin Mary plays a larger role. Protestant churches in general are “all Christian churches that are not Catholic”.
As you can imagine, the “Ave Maria” song is more widely performed in Catholic settings than it is in Protestant settings. I have presented the Ave Maria many times in Protestant church services and settings without incident. In fact, even presented it in non-Christian church services without incident. I think because the song is almost universally accepted as a beautiful and inspirational devotional piece.
JS Bach was a devout Lutheran. JS Bach was German and the split from the Catholic Church in Germany was spearheaded by Martin Luther in the early 16th century. Luther’s protests gave birth to the new “protestant” religion Lutheran in Germany. JS Bach was a devout Lutheran and composing just 200 years after this break.
Catholicism and Lutheranism were vehemently opposed during JS Bach’s time (still are today to some extent, many blame Martin Luther for breaking up the Catholic church).
I am going to go out on a limb here (I could be very wrong about this) but I would think that in JS Bach’s time (1685-1750) it would NOT have been acceptable to perform the Ave Maria in a Lutheran church service. In fact, I imagine it would have been outright blasphemy.
So for that reason I am going to go out on a limb and suppose that JS Bach would never have written an Ave Maria. I would even imagine that JS Bach, back during the time of his life, would have been deeply offended that someone took his music to create an Ave Maria.
If anyone has info to the contrary then I hope they post that info in a reply here.
What do I think? We live in different times today. If the Ave Maria is inspiring to people and moves their gaze to a higher purpose and vision – then let’s present it to them. That was my personal reasoning given to clergy before performances and usually accepted.
JS Bach says music has two purposes: Music should be for the glory of God or for the entertainment of the senses. In a very general sense I wholly agree with that.
Ave Maria by Franz Schubert with Latin Lyrics
(Not the original German lyrics)
Ave Maria by Bach/Gounod:

One thought on “Email Q&A: Who wrote Ave Maria

  1. Although JS Bach certainly was a devout Lutheran, he did not seem to be so vehemently opposed to composing pieces with catholic themes. In fact, it was during a later period of his career, under catholic patronage, that he wrote some of his masterpieces such as the Mass in B minor and The St. Mathew’s Passion with explicit catholic thematics.
    Whether he wrote Ave Maria, it seems very unlikely that he did, but not for a matter of his faith, but simply because there’s enough evidence that Gounod created the modern adaptation based on Bach’s Prelude in C Major.

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