The history of Ave Maria
is a chequered one even by Gounod’s standards of multiple versions of works, and a recycling of material worthy of the most careful and economical of French chefs. The very musical idea is already a thrifty one, perhaps more worthy of the plagiarizing pop musicians of today than a great original composer. This descant to the first C major Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is so hugely celebrated however (and so often tastelessly and badly performed) that it requires something of an effort to re-discover how truly felicitous was the result of the composer’s outrageous hubris in marrying his tune to an ‘accompaniment’ by a composer greater than he could ever hope to be. Gounod had heard Mendelssohn play Bach’s organ works in Leipzig in 1843; during the period in which he was organist of the Missions Etrangères he had made a point of replacing the customary meretricious organ voluntaries with Palestrina and Bach—music which was not at all well known in the France of the 1850s. In this light it can be argued that Gounod’s piece was probably meant as a popularizing tribute to a neglected master. The original song was a setting of Lamartine (from his Recueillements poétiques
) entitled Premier prélude de J S Bach
. This was composed in 1852. It was arranged as a choral piece with violin obbligato in 1856, and in 1859 someone had the bright idea (perhaps the composer himself) that the Ave Maria
text could be made to fit the vocal line. Since then its progress through the world has been remarkable and wide-ranging. For example, Alessandro Moreschi, the sole castrato of the Sistine Chapel to survive into the early recording era, made a recording of this song. Despite all the bizarreries perpetrated on this music, it deserves a fresh hearing as a wonderful example of Gounod’s melodic invention and ingenuity.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993