The Origin of Ave Maria

From the Eastman School of Music comes this fascinating press release that shows how much music can teach us about the history of our faith.

Eastman School of Music
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Media Contact: Michael Alan Anderson, 585-274-1124,

June 24, 2010

Eastman Professor Discovers Untold History of the ‘Ave Maria’ in Music

The Ave Maria (or ‘Hail Mary’) remains one of the most widely repeated prayers among the world’s Christian population, especially Catholics. It has been said by the faithful both in private and in public for centuries. Many know that the prayer contains two parts. The first part derives from the Gospel of Luke; the second part (beginning ‘Sancta Maria…’ [or ‘Holy Mary…’]) is simply an attached petition, not based on Scripture. The second part of the prayer is thought to have emerged and transmitted orally in the fifteenth century in various forms, later solidified with the issue of the Roman breviary in 1568.

Michael Alan Anderson, Assistant Professor of Music at the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester) has discovered that the second half of the prayer—the sinner’s direct plea to Mary—dates considerably earlier than commonly thought by historians. According to Anderson, who specializes in medieval and Renaissance music history, it turns out that musical composers were experimenting with petitionary supplements to the Ave Maria as early as the late thirteenth century, at least 150 years before historians have recognized such additions to the prayer.

And it was not just one composer providing an isolated case example. Anderson has found three instances that prove that composers – many of whom were also poets – were affixing a plea to the Virgin Mary after the text of the Ave Maria was apparently complete. A musical manuscript known as the Montpellier Codex (compiled between 1260-1280) contains two examples of the phenomenon, while another manuscript (Las Huelgas Codex) from the early fourteenth century provides another case study.

As one might expect in the primarily oral culture of the Middle Ages, the petitions attached to the Ave Maria in the various pieces of music were not uniform. But the cases all occur in the same musical genre known as the “motet”, a sophisticated piece of choral music in which the voices sing different texts simultaneously. In one motet from the Montpellier Codex, the highest-ranging voice sings the Latin text “Filio sis, O dulcis, proprio nostra advocata” [“Be our advocate, O Sweet One, before your own Son of your Womb”] after it declaims the Ave Maria prayer. This may sound distant from the petition “Holy Mary Mother of God…”, but it is a direct address to Mary to pray to Christ on behalf of the sinner and considerably closer to a second half of the prayer than scholars of ecclesiastical history have thought.

In another multi-texted motet from the Montpellier Codex, one of the voices sings “Natum dulcissimum pro nobis peccatoribus exora, beata Maria” [“O blessed Mary, pray to your sweetest son for us sinners”] after singing the first half of the Ave Maria. While the Latin in this piece of music is hardly comparable to that of the prayer in its final form, seeing these words in an English translation begins to show similarities with the version that has come down to Christians.

The final case from the later manuscript (Las Huelgas) contains a motet for two voices with the following supplementary petition to its Ave Maria: “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis” [“Holy Mary, pray for us”]. This plea is noticeably short but also surprisingly consistent with the language known from second half of the prayer.

Moreover, in each of these cases, Anderson has found that the composer drew attention to the two-part nature of the prayer by seeking contrasts in the texture of the music at the moment of transition from the Biblical verses to the petition to Mary. This is especially salient in the case of the motet from Las Huelgas, where the composer effectively halts the music by giving the bottom voice a single long note, while the upper voice seems to improvise on the plea to Mary. “It is as if the composer was saying ‘Drum roll, here comes something new and different!’” Anderson explains.

The results of this research tell an untold story of one of the central and most powerful prayers of Christianity in the Middle Ages, still widely uttered in the Catholic Church today. To this point, the encyclopedia definition of ‘Ave Maria’ has had little to say about the second half of the prayer. And the examples that may foreshadow the standardized version from the sixteenth century have traditionally been from the fifteenth century. Earlier examples have had a weak relationship with the prayer. Anderson summarized, “It turns out that neither literature nor sermons but music from a much earlier period may begin to change our understanding about the enigmatic early history of this widespread devotion.”

Anderson’s research is published in the current issue of the Journal of Plainsong and Medieval Music (Cambridge).

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A pdf of the article is available at . The author may be contacted directly for interviews. A sound sample is also available by request.