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!