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The story behind "Ave Maria" by Gounod & Bach

Charles-François Gounod’s “Ave Maria” is a curious case in music history – the result of a musical collaboration that expanded through a century. The two great composers, in this case, Charles Gounod and Johann Sebastian Bach were not even contemporaries. The melody of this song was crafted 130 years after its accompaniment!

Bach's Prelude

Johann Sebastian Bach published “Book 1” of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” in 1772. The “Prelude in C major,” is the first piece of this collection and is a famous piece among piano students since that time. Out of the 35 measures present in the Prelude, there are 34 measures of “16th-note arpeggios” and one measure comprising of a single, “whole-note C-major chord.” The work can be characterized for its inventive and rich harmony, and frequent cacophony. 

Prelude in C Major by Bach: Hand written original 

Bach, Gounod, and The Mendelssohn 

Charles Gounod considered Johann Sebastian as the “Master of masters.” He was introduced to some of Bach’s work on the keyboard in 1840 when he met Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. She and her husband became a close friend of Gounod. According to Charles, “Fanny would play the piano with a palpable simplicity and readiness, signifying her passion towards it. She introduced me to various masterpieces in German music, including some works of Johann Sebastian Bach. It included a variety of Felix Mendelssohn's compositions and also numerous concertos, preludes, fugues and sonatas of Bach.” Later, Gounod was invited by Felix Mendelssohn to visit Leipzig. Felix subsequently played some of Bach’s organ works in a private concert in the “Thomaskirche.” Incidentally, Bach had been a choirmaster there.   

Johann Sebastien Bach

Gounod's Espièglerie

In 1852, Gounod used to spend several evenings at his Paris home accompanied by his fiancée Anna Zimmermann. Anna’s father, Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann was a famous composer and pianist who had taught at the Paris Conservatory for many years. One evening, Gounod improvised an alluring melody over Bach’s Prelude in C and was overheard by Zimmermann. Overwhelmed, Pierre rushed into the room and asked Gounod to play it again, and subsequently scribbled down the piece in musical notations. After a few days, the piece was again performed at a house concert organized by Zimmermann, utilizing a small choir, piano, and violin.   

Composer, Charles Gounod

Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Sebastian Bach

In 1853, Gounod’s works were published under the name “Meditation on the First Prelude of Sebastian Bach.” It has a solo violin part along with a piano portion which is based on Bach’s prelude, although slightly reframed. The title page states that the player can utilize a cello for the violin part but on a lower octave. In 1854, the first documented performance of “Meditation” was played by Adrien-François Servais. It also contained an optional second cello in case all organs are unavailable. The fun fact is, this first edition is completely devoid of any song text.    

Ave Maria

Charles Gounod added words to his composition only after 1859. However, the first wordings that were utilized was not “Ave Maria,” but a short poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, titled “Vers écrits sur un album.” The poem was crafted as a gift for an admirer of Lamartine. Gounod selected this poem as the text for “Meditation,” and also gifted a copy to his student Rosalie Jousset. However, the letter was intercepted by Aurélie Jousset, Rosalie’s mother-in-law. She found the whole situation highly inappropriate and replied back to Gounod with an alternative text under the original poem. It was the texts of the popular Latin prayer “Ave Maria.” Gounod understood the hint and subsequently adopted Aurélie’s version. In 1859, the first version of “Ave Maria” was recorded.

However, Gounod never considered “Ave Maria” to be a significant part of his whole life’s work. He didn’t even mention it in his autobiography. The fact is, “Ave Maria” does seem like a minuscule effort when compared to his more famous works – like the opera “Faust.” The harmonic structure and the accompaniment are Bach’s creation, while Zimmerman was probably responsible for some voicing of the additional organ part. Lastly, even the text of the song is a result of Aurélie Jousset’s idea.    

Utilization in the Popular Culture

In 1859, a version of “Ave Maria” was published by Jacques Léopold Heugel in Latin text that was similar to “Vers écrits sur un album.” Also, Gounod’s version of Bach’s prelude included the “Schwencke measure” [m.23] which was allegedly incorporated by Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwencke. It was an attempt to rectify what he considered to be a “faulty progression,” although this type of progression was already prevalent in Bach’s music. 

With time, “Ave Maria” has become a common fixture at social events, namely – quinceañeras, funerals, masses, and weddings. It also has several different instrumental arrangements, for trombones, cello, piano solo, string quartet, guitar, and violin. In the 20th century, renowned opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, and Nellie Melba have utilized it, and several choirs have recorded it numerous times. In the twilight of his career, Gounod himself crafted an unrelated version of “Ave Maria” for a “four-part SATB choir.”      

Conclusion

In its first performance on April 10, 1853, “Ave Maria” proved to be an irresistible force of melody. It attracted a phenomenal level of acclaim, becoming immensely popular while improving Gounod’s faltering reputation within the contemporary public. However, musical purists have never abated from criticizing Gounod for defaming a classic by adding unbridled sentimentality.

While Gounod’s composition was a self-commending fine specimen of a Bellini-esque “bel canto,” Bach’s original was comprised of harmonic progressions utilizing broken chords. It was a forecast of the future generation’s gallant style, while also evoking romanticism with its reliance on rippling arpeggios, a fulsome grandeur crying out for cantilena. The composer had attempted to dismiss the “Meditation” as a mere “espièglerie,” a prank, but he himself was more than capable of adapting other Bach preludes without conspicuous success.

In his own words, Gounod famously quoted, “if the works of the Grand Master of Music like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were to be annihilated by a sudden cataclysm, we can still fill the void. It would be easy to refurbish Bach’s music. In the vast sky of art, Bach is the mist yet to be condensed.”    

 

 

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