Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Memories: Ave Maria

For many Mormons, any version of the Christmas classic, Ave Maria, is hopelessly tainted by its association with Catholic Marian devotions.  I personally think this is extremely unfortunate; I feel the various versions of Ave Maria are among the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and performed, and on this third Sunday of Advent, I thought I’d share a few personal thoughts on this subject.

Since I was raised Catholic, I grew up with this music and learned to love it as contributing to the magical mystery that surrounded Christmas.  When I was a child, there was to me every bit as much mystery associated with the religious celebration of Christmas as there was with Santa Claus.  As Advent progressed and drew to a close, the boughs of evergreen went up in the church, the Christmas trees appeared, and all looked forward to the pinnacle celebration of the season:  mass on Christmas Eve. 

There was just something about gathering in a candle-lit church in the middle of the night that was magical to me as a child.  (Alas, the magic has long since gone; it belonged only to my childhood and adolescence.)  On occasion, a soloist would sing either Schubert’s or Gounod’s Ave Maria, and in the stillness of the night, the beautiful music added to the air of mystery and awe that made Christmas special.

I sometimes wonder if those members of the LDS Church who turn away from Ave Maria realize that the text of the first part of the hymn is taken from the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary when he appeared to her, as recorded in Luke 1:28-31.  These verses form the first part of the hymn:

Ave Maria                                                          Hail Mary
Gratia plena                                                      Full of Grace
Dominus tecum                                                  The Lord is with thee
Benedicta tu in mulieribus                                  Blessed art thou amongst women
Et benedictus fructus ventris                              And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Tui, Jesus                                                         Jesus.

The second part of the hymn is the concluding part of the Catholic prayer, the “Hail Mary”:

Sancta Maria                                                     Holy Mary
Mater Dei                                                          Mother of God
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus                               Pray for us sinners
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae                          Now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.                                                               Amen.

I realize that it is this second part of the hymn that likely causes the most problems for some Latter-day Saints.  (I know of a ward where the Schubert piece was played in the Christmas sacrament meeting as a piano/violin duet (i.e, no words(!), just music), and a number of ward members vociferously complained to the bishop that the music was totally inappropriate.  Such are the feelings of some members.)  But if you think about it, is it really all that “heretical”?  I mean, our own scriptures tell us that Mary was “a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins … the mother of the son of God” (1 Nephi 11:15,18), “a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God” (Alma 7:10). 

Given that no less than three Book of Mormon prophets (Nephi, King Benjamin and Alma) who lived many years before Christ’s birth knew Mary’s name, specifically referred to her by name, and described her with words such as “most beautiful and fair,” “precious,” and “chosen,” one might think that Mary might enjoy a higher stature among Mormons than she does.  And how many times have you heard someone in the church make reference to persons in the spirit world offering prayers on behalf of someone still in mortality?  Are those not “intercessory” prayers? (Shhh!)

It occurs to me – and this is just a thought, mind you – that the aversion to Catholic Marian devotion might not be the principal reason for Mary’s relatively low stature in the Mormon world.  It seems to me that it is just possible that there might be some who might conjecture that such slighting, along with, e.g., the prevalent attitude toward Emma Smith, might – just might, mind you – have more to do with women’s perceived role in the “order of things” than an aversion to “popery.” (As an aside, go here for a fascinating article, written by a Mormon scholar, linking Mary to the Tree of Life.)

But, I digress.

As someone who was raised Catholic, I never felt like I “worshipped” Mary.  Sure, her statue was in the church, and there were usually candles lit in front of her, but she was just sort of there.  No big deal.  Parenthetically, a notable exception to this general lack of interest in Mary was when I was in second grade in a parochial school.  May was the month of Mary, and each child in our class was assigned a day on which he or she was responsible for bringing flesh flowers to place in front of the statue of Mary in our classroom.  I recall that when my turn came, I brought bridal wreath from the bushes that formed a border of our yard.  I smiled as I remembered this because I also recalled that it was in these bushes that I kissed a girl for the first time at the tender age of seven or eight.  Caused quite a hullabaloo.  Among other things, I had to go to confession and say multitudes of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, and perhaps even an Apostles’ Creed or two.

To me, Ave Maria has never been about theological intricacies concerning Mary’s position in the eternal order of things.  It has, for me, simply been a beautiful tribute to the mystery of that wonderful night when she – a mortal – gave birth to Jesus Christ – a God.  And I kinda think she deserves the recognition and reverent awe that is evoked by this sacred piece of music.

There are hundreds of recordings of the two most popular versions of Ave Maria:  Schubert’s and Gounod’s.  I have chosen one by Renee Fleming, performing Schubert’s beautiful arrangement. I hope you enjoy it in the spirit it which it is offered.


  1. Ha! I didnt know that Ave Maria lyrics were taken from both Bible and "Hail Mary" prayer.

    Anyway, I like this song too. I especially like it when it is sung by Sarah Brightman.

    Thank you
    Joned Rahadian^_^

  2. I love this song. I'm so glad I got to go to a multitude of different churches growing up, and I did get to attend Episcopal midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It was magical! Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. Few Mormons know that the first Catholic Mass in SLC was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Catholic Church there did not have a choir at the time.

  3. I, too, love Ave Maria. At one time I was afraid of it. When it is not Christmastime, it might surprise you to know that I have become a devoted listener to Gregorian Chant when an employee tipped me off to the wonders of Pandora and I can now feed my interest in early Christian vocal music easily and affordably.

  4. Quiet Song - That doesn't surprise me, considering the little I know about you. :) I have always had a special place in my heart for liturgical music, though, like other things, I haven't fed that interest for quite some time. That's about to change! Thanks for the tip about Pandora! I wasn't familiar with that, but have already signed up.

    Neal and Joned, glad you enjoyed this as well. And Neal, thanks for the tip about MoTab providing music for the first mass.

  5. P.S.: Quiet Song - I would welcome a list of your favorite chants!

  6. I actually just heard this song last night at Mormon Church for a Festival of Nativities... I was surprised also. Beautiful song though.

  7. That's really interesting that your ward reacted in so negatively. I just listened to a recording of BYU's Men's Chorus singing Ave Maria the other day! Hahaha I refer to Men's Chorus a lot on your blog; I apologize.

    Thanks for posting the lyrics. I think the second verse is very beautiful. I'm not sure we talk about Mary enough as Mormons.

    Btw, your picture in this post is from 'The Nativity Story.' Have you watched it yet? It's definitely one of the best Nativity interpretations I have ever seen :)

  8. thank you for Renee Flemming tonight. i love her voice. the clarity and truth behind it....
    thank you for being here.
    your friend

  9. James and Apronkid - Thanks for letting us know about these instances where Ave Maria has been performed in the Mormon world. I am frankly (pleasantly) surprised that the BYU Men's Chorus recorded it. I have the Nativity Story on my bedside table, ready to watch, Apronkid. I'm behind on my Christmas movie watching.

    Sean - glad you enjoyed it. Thank *you* be being here.

  10. I love Ave Maria! I ironically had a discussion with some members of my ward this last week about wishing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would sing it at one of their Christmas concerts. We ALL agreed that that would be a great thing.

    As for music from the Catholic church, there is nothing like choral music sung simply in a medieval cathedral (preferably in Italy) that demonstrates the pure spirit and beauty of religious music.