The words to "Ave Maria" translate to the Hail Mary, a well-known Roman Catholic prayer that honors Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. It begins, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you." The composers Franz Schubert and Johann Sebastian Bach, with Charles Gounod, composed the most famous musical settings of this prayer. "Ave Maria" may be sung in Latin or English, depending on the preference of the singer.
The Ave Maria is the major prayer of the Rosary, which is a Catholic devotion to Mary. The first half of the prayer recalls the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary at the Annunciation. The second half requests Mary's intercession on behalf of sinners. The prayer originated sometime in the 14th century and went through several changes before arriving at the modern version in the second half of the 16th century.
The version of the song in Schubert's setting comes from a poem by Sir Walter Scott, "Ellen's Third Song," which is found in his epic poem, "The Lady of the Lake." Schubert used a version of the poem that had been translated into German by Adam Storck in his 1825 piece, "Song Cycle of the Lady of the Lake." In Scott's poem, Ellen Douglas is a young heroine who beseeches Mary for aid while hiding in a cave from warring armies. It begins, "Ave Maria! maiden mild! / Listen to a maiden's prayer! / Thou canst hear though from the wild, / Thou canst save amid despair."
French composer Charles Gounod wrote another melody for "Ave Maria" in 1853 to be played over J.S. Bach's "1722 Prelude No. 1 in C major." In some cases, a piano plays "Prelude" while a violin or other instrument plays Gounod's melody. In others, a singer performs Gounod's portion.