Ave Maria...Oh NO!

Since completing my Grade 8 in singing with an embarrassingly high mark (for me anyway), a lot of things have come my way. I've sung with a couple of choirs outside of school, been paid token amounts for my efforts (hey, money is money), and somehow weaselled my way into a choir of semi-professional real ale drinkers musicians. And on top of that, I'm looking for paid choral work in Manchester - so if anyone needs a soprano, kindly drop me a line. (Seriously. I'm a student. It's a foregone conclusion that I'm broke - but fortunately surviving off more than just noodles and ramen because I know how to cook.) And I want to continue and maybe do diplomas and such.

Anyway, sometime in late August I went up to St Albans to sing with one of the choirs that my former music teacher helps run, which was pretty fun (if exhausting) and I met a lot of nice people...and we got asked, at more or less the last minute, to sing at a wedding.

Now, I don't really mind doing this. I've sung at weddings before and I'm reasonably good at sight-reading.

The thing is, a lot of people just pick the same stuff over and over again and there are definitely some musicians out there (including me) who are a bit fed up of this. We understand that it's not our day, that it's yours, that fundamentally the decision is yours, that fundamentally I'm too broke to be complaining and yes I'm happy to sing that at your wedding, but often you get a problem with people only half-knowing pieces. More on this later.

Now, I personally am a vocalist (incidentally, some people look down on me for this because I use my body as an instrument, but I still needed to actually train it so it sort of counts). In fact, I am a lyric soprano, which is a dirt-common voice type...but still able to pull off that song.

Yes. You know the one. The light floaty one sung by a soprano as everyone oohs and ahs.

Oh, fuck it - it's Schubert's Ave Maria, as sung by Renée Fleming.

If you're a soprano, you'll probably get asked to sing this at some point. If you've been a soprano for long enough, you might very well get sick of it - my singing teacher and I used to complain about it together.

"But why do you not like it?" a non-musician might ask. "It's so pretty and emotional!"

Yes, we know it's pretty and emotional. That's why you folks keep asking for it to be performed. We understand this.

However, there are still two main problems:

Because it's so well-known, it's difficult to do well. At first glance this probably doesn't make sense - after all, if it's well-known, surely it must take less time to learn and perform properly? The catch is that when it's well-known, lots of people sort of know how to sing it - but don't know completely. They miss out the finer points and develop bad habits, such as lagging behind the beat, and because they already sort of know how to sing the piece it becomes more difficult to fine-tune the song and iron out those bad habits. For example, it's really easy to go flat on...well...most of the piece, to be perfectly honest. If you know the piece inside out - which is ideal but you might only get something on short notice - you'll know what you need to do to keep your notes on pitch. If you half-know it, you've got to listen like mad, and if you don't have absolute pitch this gets a bit more difficult. So when you half-know it, you're more likely to go disastrously flat on the first note of the piece, lag behind your poor accompanist...and worst of all, not even realise that this is happening.

The text is annoying. This is probably the best way I can put it. Ave Maria actually started life as Ellens dritter Gesang or Ellens Gesang III (Ellen's Third Song), loosely translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott. If you sing the German text, it flows much better than the Latin.

Yep, that's right. The melody was adapted for use with the Roman Catholic prayer Ave Maria (Hail Mary), in Latin, when it was initially designed to fit English and German words. As Latin and German are quite different languages, this went about as well as can be expected - that is to say, quite badly. Despite the best efforts of the poor schmucks setting it, the prayer doesn't flow at all well and it feels like you're spitting out Latin. The music is sometimes also badly set, and when you're sight-reading this thinking you half-know it...well...you're as likely as not to end up with garbled mishmash that sounds like a cruel parody of Ave Maria.

At this point, a lot of you might be feeling offended. I advise you to direct your eyes towards my blog header, which points out that I'm almost certain to offend you and that I did give you fair warning of this.

There's nothing wrong with the piece itself - it's very beautiful. The problem comes in how overdone it is, and that introduces additional problems with half-knowing the piece (on the technical side). Of course, I'm talking about a straight performance here: for example, if you want to use a different text or arrangement that's more unique and also helps solve the two main problems.

So what now? Well, we have about 1500 years of Western art music, from plainsong to pieces being composed every day. That's not even taking into account the music of other cultures. In short, you're spoiled for choice. That's not meant to be patronising but rather to point out that there's an awe-inspiring amount of beautiful, stirring music out there. (This is the kind of the thing that makes me happy - it's genuinely not intended to be a put-down.) If you want to narrow it down, talk to a musician, check your song choice with your church if you're having a church wedding (there may be certain rules about what can and can't be performed). If you want something with a similar feel to Ave Maria, there are plenty of pieces out there from around the same time period, maybe a little earlier or later. Some of them are absolutely lovely, full of emotion - and great to have!