The Lady of the Lake is a narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott, which was first published in 1810. It is set in the Trossachs, which is an area of wooded glens and braes with quiet lochs, lying to the east of Ben Lomond in the Stirling council area region of Scotland. The poem is composed of six cantos (sections into which certain long poems are divided), each of which concerns the action of a single day. This poem is classified as being a boat song which is a vocal, or occasionally an instrumental, musical composition, either intended actually to be sung while rowing or sailing or written in imitation of a song thus used. The poem has three main plots, being the contest among three men, Roderick Dhu, James Fitz-James, and Malcolm Graeme, to win the love of Ellen Douglas; the feud and reconciliation of King James V of Scotland and James Douglas; and a war between the lowland Scots (led by James V) and the highland clans (led by Roderick Dhu of Clan Alpine).
The poem drew on the romance of the legend regarding the 5th century British leader King Arthur, but the Scottish historical novelist, poet, playwright and historian transferred this to his native Scotland. In Canto III: The Gathering, Roderick Dhu is about to leave the island preparing to go off to battle, when he overhears Ellen praying to the Virgin, singing ‘Ave Maria’. Ellen Douglas sings a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary, calling upon her for help. This poem marked the pinnacle of Scott’s popularity as a poet, as it sold 25,000 copies in eight months, breaking all records for the sale of poetry.
Some of Europe’s finest composers were seduced both by the Scottish landscape, with its rocky coastlines and windswept highlands, and by its literature. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote songs using Scottish poetry including his famous ‘Ave Maria’, which was inspired by a setting of a poem by Sir Walter Scott. In 1825, when he was twenty-eight years old and filled with devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and while he was on a holiday in Upper Austria, Schubert set to music a prayer from the Sir Walter Scott poem. Schubert used a German translation by Adam Storck and this song was scored for one pianist and one singer, and first published as ‘D839 Op 52 no 6’. Schubert called his piece ‘Ellens dritter Gesang’ (Ellen’s third song) and it was written as a prayer to the Virgin Mary from a frightened girl, Ellen Douglas, who had been forced into hiding. Even in Schubert’s own brief lifetime (he died in 1828 at age 31), ‘Ave Maria’ was considered a masterpiece, and unlike the vast majority of his compositions, it found a publisher before his death.
The song was not written for liturgical services, but the music proved to be inspirational to listeners, particularly Roman Catholics, and a Latin text was substituted to make it suitable for use in church. The words and lyrics most commonly used with Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ music are not the words that the composer originally set to music, as it opens with those words, but otherwise bears no resemblance to the original prayer. The composer Franz Liszt was a deeply religious man, so much so that he almost became a priest (he took the orders but he never completed the training), so it’s no surprise that he made various versions of ‘Ave Maria’. There is another very famous setting of this prayer which is by Charles Gounod. The composer Anton Bruckner also wrote three different settings to the ‘Ave Maria’.
The prayer Hail Mary which is sometimes called the ‘Angelical salutation’, and sometimes called ‘Ave Maria’ from the first Latin words in it is the most familiar of all the prayers used to honor our Blessed Lady. There is a legend that tells about the origin of this prayer when St. Ildephonsus was going to the church one night and found our Blessed Lady seated near a choir of virgins who were singing her praises. Then St. Ildephonsus approached making a series of genuflections and repeating at each of them those words of the Angel’s greeting: ‘Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’. Our Lady then showed her pleasure at this homage and rewarded the saint with the gift of a beautiful vestment.
‘Ava Maria’ is one of the most recognized songs in the world. It’s beautiful tune truly makes your heart swell with feeling and each rendition has a unique way of paying tribute to this classic. There’s something about these soothing notes and melodies that feels spiritual and every time I hear this song a fluttering feeling forms in the pit of my stomach. This song is often included on many Christmas albums and it is also sung at a lot of weddings and funerals. ‘Ava Maria’ has been sung by Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Beyoncé, Celine Dion, Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra among others and it is often sung in Latin.
The Disney movie Fantasia ends with the song ‘Ave Maria’. The Ave Maria animation is a cascade of beautiful blue backgrounds, continuously sliding past each other as the barely-defined pilgrims proceed out of the woods and into the stunning morning light. Disney decided that nuns would emerge into a blaze of morning light, so once again the powers of life and hope have triumphed over the hosts of death and despair, creating a sequence depicting the struggle between the sacred and the profane.
Ave Maria, maiden mild
Oh, listen to a maiden’s prayer
For thou canst hear amid the wild
‘Tis thou, ‘tis thou canst save amid, despair
We slumber safely till the morrow
Though we’ve by man outcast reviled
Oh maiden, see a maiden’s sorrow
Oh mother, hear a suppliant child
Ave Maria gratia plena
Maria gratia plena
Maria gratia plena
Ave ave dominus, dominus tecum
The murky cavern’s air so heavy
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled
Oh maiden, hear a maiden pleadin’
Oh mother, hear a suppliant child