Edward Elgar | Ave Maris Stella (1887)
[Elgar was] “the personification of the true English character in music ... a noble personality and a born aristocrat".”
— Jean Sibelius
Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance is one of the English-speaking world’s most recognizable tunes. Elgar knew it was a compelling theme when the melody first came into his head: “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em – will knock ’em flat,” he told a friend. But while the piece summons ceremonial images of Victorian England — set with the text “Land of Hope and Glory,” it is was considered as a national anthem — Elgar himself was not a typical Englishman.
He was a Roman Catholic in a musical society dominated by high-church Anglicans. (His wife, Caroline Alice Roberts, was disinherited by her family when she married a Catholic.) Nor did he have a distinguished social or musical pedigree. His father was a professional violinist, piano tuner, and music shop owner. Elgar received training in piano and violin as a child and became accomplished enough to consider a career as a soloist, but did not have formal training in a conservatory. He was largely self-taught in theory and composition.
He was very active in musical circles, attending concerts, conducting small community ensembles, giving piano and violin lessons, working occasionally in his father’s music shop, and arranging music for some of the ensembles he led. In his mid-twenties he assisted his father, who was organist at St. George’s Catholic Church in Worcester, and eventually succeeded him. He wrote his first liturgical works during those years, including Ave Maris Stella, one of his Three Motets, Op. 2 (1887).
Elgar continued his composing, largely choral and instrumental works for various festivals, but made his living largely as a music teacher and conductor of ensembles. His friend and publisher August Jaeger, famously encouraged him, “A day’s attack of the blues ... will not drive away your desire, your necessity, which is to exercise those creative faculties which a kind providence has given you. Your time of universal recognition will come.”
That recognition came in 1889 with the large-scale orchestral work, Enigma Variations, which established Elgar as one of the leading English composers of his time.
“Ave Maris Stella” is a plainsong vespers hymn to the Virgin. The text dates from at least the ninth century, with manuscripts kept in Vienna and elsewhere. The honorific title “Maris Stella” (Star of the Sea) was first proposed for Mary by St. Jerome, probably around 390 A.D.
Ave maris stella, Dei Mater alma,
atque semper Virgo, felix caeli porta.
Sumens illud Ave Gabrielis ore,
funda nos in pace, mutans Hevae nomen.
Solve vincula reis, profer lumen caecis
mala nostra pelle, bona cuncta posce.
Monstra te esse matrem: sumat per te preces,
qui pro nobis natus, tulit esse tuus.
Virgo singularis, inter omnes mites,
nos culpis solutos, mites fac et castos.
Vitam praesta puram, iter para tutum:
ut videntes Iesum semper collaetemur.
Sit laus Deo Patri, summo Christo decus,
Spiritui Sancto, tribus honor unus. Amen.
Hail, O Star of the ocean, God’s own Mother blest,
ever sinless Virgin, gate of heavenly rest.
Taking that sweet Ave, which from Gabriel came,
peace confirm within us, changing Eve’s name.
Break the sinners’ fetters, make our blindness day,
Chase all evils from us, for all blessings pray.
Show thyself a Mother, may the Word divine
born for us thine Infant hear our prayers through thine.
Virgin all excelling, mildest of the mild,
free from guilt preserve us meek and undefiled.
Keep our life all spotless, make our way secure
till we find in Jesus, joy for evermore.
Praise to God the Father, honor to the Son,
in the Holy Spirit, be the glory one. Amen.