Marian Musical Musings

Devotion to Mary during the month of May is a longstanding custom among Catholics. With much of the world still under stay-at-home orders, Pope Francis has encouraged families to pray the rosary together daily. Musical expression of prayer is part of spiritual practice for many of us. Below is a listing of Marian songs and hymns for congregation and choir curated by our music director, Michael Johnson. Enjoy!
All of the pieces (plus a few extra) have been brought together in a YouTube Playlist. CLICK HERE
Ave Maria

Whether for solo, congregation, or choir, singing the text of the "Hail Mary" is a foundation of musical expression about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This is the one that started it all. The great solo settings like Schubert and choral settings like Biebl all drew their inspiration from it. While many Catholics associate Mary with the month of May or feasts like Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, this chant is actually positioned by the church as the  proper for the Preparation of Gifts on the 4th Sunday of Advent, paired with the Gospel Reading recounting the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.

Most widely known among the musical settings of the “Hail Mary,” its origin is actually a German folk song of a prayer to Mary. Pairing with the Latin text of the Catholic prayer was a later development. This recording features famous soprano, Renee Fleming.

Just as people refer to pork as “the other white meat,” as the second most popular solo setting, you find people referring to it as “that other Ave Maria”. It combines a piano work of J.S. Bach with a melody by Charles Gounod for singing the “Hail Mary” text. Rather than sifting through the volumes of sung recordings, here’s the melody played by famous cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

Often viewed as a foundational choral setting, choirs find it an accessible setting of the text and makes for a quicker learn. Our choir has made use of it as well as another choral work, Hear My Prayer, O God, that uses the tune and pairs with a sacred text. It might be the shortest “Ave Maria” and has resulted in a need to sing it twice when used for the Preparation of Gifts at Mass!

One of the most beloved choral settings by singers, its thick choral sound comes from being sung by what is known as a double choir. Splitting the voices of course makes it much more challenging. While not musically new, the piece was given a boost by the American male choral ensemble, Chanticleer, who frequently gives concerts at our Cathedral.

If you listened to the chant version, you will find the opening section familiar, a choral technique known as an “incipit, in which the chant on which it is based is used to begin the piece. Along with Arcadelt, it is one of the older of the choral settings of the “Hail Mary”. Our choir has found it an interesting compliment to the Arcadelt as the independent movement of voices (you’ll hear the same syllable more than once) gives some challenge to the singers.

Most of the adult members of the parish have not heard this setting. I say adult because it is in the repertoire of our school liturgy choir. Some of the higher notes present challenge to our young singers but I’ve been impressed by the way our more musically inclined children (i.e. play instruments, participate in musicals, etc.) really latch on to the soaring melody.

Our choir singers have come to know that I am a big fan of his choral writing. They’ve come to love it too but make no doubt some of them will see his name on here, roll their eyes, and say under their breath, “figures, he’d work Stopford into this list!”

A favorite of our school music teacher and daughter or the parish, Christy (Dole) Bingle, you will notice the chant melody woven into the background of this congregational setting of the “Hail Mary.” If it sounds familiar to you, that is because it makes an annual appearance on the 4th Sunday of Advent as Masses in which the choir is not singing. Enjoy the choral harmonies and instruments that we don’t hear when it is led by piano and cantor!

Marian Antiphons

The Church’s bedtime prayer, Night Prayer or Compline (both names are used), concludes with a Marian chant.

Four texts are divided over the course of the liturgical year:

  • Alma Redemptoris Mater – Sung from the first Sunday of Advent, through the Christmas season, until Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd.
  • Ave Regina Caelorum – Sung from Presentation of the Lord, through Lent, until Holy Saturday.
  • Regina Caeli – Sung from Easter Sunday through Pentecost (the Easter Season)
  • Salve Regina – Sunday from Pentecost through the summer and fall weeks of Ordinary Time until the Liturgical Calendar begins anew with the First Sunday of Advent.


Alma Redemptoris Mater

This classic of the choral settings, is often heard as a part of celebrations of Advent Lessons & Carols and is used at the beginning of the service as a bridge between Night Prayer into this Lessons & Carols service. One of Fr. Bill Dorrmann’s favorite choral pieces, I may have used the choir’s love and esteem of him to “lovingly” manipulate them into the effort of learning what has become a beloved tradition of leading off the prelude music of Christmas Midnight Mass!


Ave Regina Caelorum


Regina Caeli

As the Marian text for the Easter season, choral settings have abounded for use in the liturgies of the Easter Season. This choral setting was the first our parish choir added to its repertoire and has become a traditional prelude piece for Mother’s Day which falls on a Sunday in the Easter season.

While in many respects and easier choral setting than the Aichinger, it has the option of being sung with double choir. The double choir part can be substituted by instruments. Plans for the Easter Sunday 2020 that wasn’t, had included this as a prelude piece with our choir sing the choir 1 part and the brass players functioning as choir 2… Easter 2021 here we come!


Salve Regina

If you want to impress people, the term for describing the choral music is of Pärt is “ethereal”… but yes, in a pinch “weird” is okay too! If you use “weird” for it, just make sure it’s in the spirit of “weird is cool”! His haunting style has a way of enveloping you in the text. Choir members, relax I’m not looking to subject you to singing this!



This text is drawn from St. Luke’s Gospel and is a hymn of praise that we believe was offered by Mary in response to Elizabeth’s acknowledgement that she was bearing the Savior of the World.

Majestic hymn setting of the text that places the words of the entire canticle on the lips of the congregation.

Sung in refrain/verse format it gives a majestic treatment of the text but allows for variation be a congregation and choir or cantor.

Also is in the refrain/verse format, it offers a little bit more of an introspective treatment of the text, capped off with a gorgeous part for oboe!

This congregational setting of the Magnificat takes a translation of the text done by folk/contemporary Catholic composer, Rory Cooney, and pairs it with the energetic Irish ballad Star of the County Down. The recording linked gives a very authentic expression of Irish music!

Most people won’t be surprised that I’ve worked in something from the Taizé community… a Michael-hazard! This setting of the text is a beloved piece in the music of the Taizé community and makes a sung mantra out of the first phrase (My soul magnifies the Lord). The choral sound is sung by delaying the start by a couple of measures, known as a round. You will notice that take part in the round as well as the voices.

A choral setting for children’s voices, this has become a beloved piece by our school liturgy choir. Accented with a flute part, it has made an appearance as a choral anthem for 8th grade graduation the past few years.

  • John Rutter

You will notice the long duration of this multi-section of the work. It really milks every phrase of the text! Rutter has been a leader in 20th century English choral music. You will hear in the vocal solos the soaring melodies that have made Rutter so famous! It’s worth the long duration!



A newer hymn text is offered by Alan Hommerding, senior editor of World Library Publications and friend of our music director emeritus, Betty Reiber. The text pairs with the tune Thaxted which is perhaps best known from the hymn, O God, Beyond All Praising. The text grounds us in Mary’s role in the history of salvation as the God-bearer. Making it the complete Marian hymn for our parish, the hymn is arranged by friend/mentor of our current music director, Charles Thatcher. Charles is the retired music director of the Diocese of Orlando and St. James Cathedral, Orlando.

One of the most beloved Marian hymns, this arrangement of the hymn was done by Charles Thatcher and was used in one of the papal liturgies of Pope Francis’ 2015 Papal Visit to the United States.

Of equal popularity with Hail, Holy QueenImmaculate Mary holds a special place in the Catholic Church in the United States which is under the patronage of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This is arrangement of the hymn was done by Daniel Laginya, music director at the Catholic Cathedral in Youngstown, Ohio. In addition to beautiful choral parts you will also encounter the use of strings.

Hymn setting done by Leo Nestor, former music director of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, DC. Text is attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century hymn writer of the Eastern Church.

This refrain/verse hymn reflects on the most ancient of Marian feasts, Mary as the Mother of God, known as Theotokos (“The God-bearer") in the Orthodox tradition. A gorgeous oboe part weaves throughout the piece.

Other Marian Choral Music

This text uses the metaphor of Mary as rose and recounts her bearing the Savior. The text finds its use most frequently in Advent Lessons & Carols services. Here’s a setting by contemporary English composer, Philip Stopford. You will notice, in addition to some Latin phrases at the end of verses, the English may sound strange as it is “Middle English”.

This English text offers the metaphor of the holly plant producing its berry as a means of painting Mary’s bearing the Savior. It’s believed to be a 19th century text that has been set to music by many composers. This setting is by contemporary American choral writer, Stephen Caracciolo, who currently serves on the faculty at the University of Maryland – Baltimore.

A popular Marian hymn among Hispanic Catholics, Richard Proulx offers a gorgeous choral setting with strings. The publisher offers an English translation within the text: Click Here 

English composer Martin Dalby makes use of what is known as “macaronic” text by using a combination of English and Latin in a setting of an ancient Marian text. He composed the setting in the early 1980’s for a high school choir but make no mistake, this isn’t a simple piece! As a choral singer you get used to some patterns in the way pieces are put together – throw it out the window! Once learned though, a beautiful musical product is had.

Based on an anonymous English poem, also utilizing English and Latin, Benjamin Britten composed a piece that is in call-response form between the choir and a quartet of singers. Britten is regarded as one of the finest English composers of the 20th century. This particular piece was composed at the age of 16!

A combination of a Latin refrain and English verses, we are told “Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!” This Renaissance carol is set by Robert Batastini to utilize percussion instruments (hand-drum and finger cymbals) on the refrain and handbells on the verses. Its simplicity and versatility has allowed our parish music groups to make use of it ranging from children’s choir to adults and its rhythmic excitement and instrument usage gives contrast to other pieces sung for Christmas Mass prelude.

Recounting the Annunciation, this carol often referred to as “The Basque Carol”, makes the observation that Mary is “the most highly favored lady” as the one selected to be the God-bearer. This recording features an arrangement by English choral composer, Malcolm Archer

Music for the Folk/Contemporary and World Styles

Michael Joncas takes a text by M.D. Ridge and weds it with an Irish folk-tune, The Flight of the Earls. When looking at the text as a whole, we come a way with an account of Mary’s role in the entire life of Jesus from birth to resurrection. Once at a workshop, Joncas related a story of presentation he gave in Ireland in which he shared the piece with the attendees. He was somewhat confused as to why the attendees were snickering during the piece. Turns out the folk-tune was used by a local soccer club for their team song – challenges of using the melodies of a culture!

Tony Alonso utilize text from the Litany of Lorretto and weds it with the refrain of Immaculate Mary with its “Ave, ave, ave, Maria”

If you would like to see it used in liturgy, here’s a video to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ annual “Celebration of Cultures Mass.” Song begins around six-minute mark.

Composer, Ricky Manalo, frames the text better than I could: “The text of the assembly ostinato (the repeated refrain) places Mary praying with and in the midst of the gathered assembly. This is not to strip away any of the privileges that Mary had received throughout her life. The theme of this song, after all, centers around her role as Mother of the Church. The cantors who sing the descants simultaneously evoke a Trinitarian theology of intercessory prayer: to God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Part of the Hispanic Christmas customs, this song sings of Mary’s journey through the birth of the savior.

The traditional observance of Our Lady of Guadalupe involves arising early in the morning and begins with an extended prayer celebration that concludes with Mass.