The story behind the creation of "Ave Maria" in 1994

July 28, 2015

Over the years, I've been asked many times to tell the story behind the creation of my Ave Maria, a work for treble voices (SSSAAA) written in 1994 at the request of Elektra Women's Choir for the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the Canadian Music Centre. Ave Maria premiered at the Vancouver Playhouse in October 1994, it was published by Cypress Choral Music in 1996, and it burst upon the international choral scene when it was sung three times (in a row!) by Elektra Women's Choir at their featured performance in the Sydney Opera House for the the World Choral Symposium in 1996. Since its auspicious Sydney premiere, Ave Maria has come to be considered "standard repertoire" for advanced treble choirs everywhere and it's been performed by thousands of women's choirs and children's choirs - including a massed choir of 500 children conducted by Bob Chilcott at the Newfoundland Festival from the Rock in 2000.

From the beginning, stories appeared about the creation of Ave Maria including a strange one that accompanied a video on YouTube saying it's about The Virgin as traffic monitor and that she appeared to ensure the children had safe crossings. Because of bizarre stories like that, I've decided to publish the true story behind the creation of Ave Maria (on my Official Website, no less), so please refer to this if you need a program note or are trying to settle a bet.

Part I: In 1994, I was deep in research for an opera I was writing about paranormal spiritual events in war-torn Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. It's a true story revolving around six children who receive daily visitations from the Virgin Mary beginning in June, 1981 and continuing for several years. Over time, the visitations are moved from the open countryside to the town of Medjugorje, where every evening at 5:30, The Virgin would receive the children in a tiny chapel beside the main church in the centre of town. For  thousands of believers, the children represent a connection to the Divine, and as such, they are worshipped, too. Every evening at 5:30, when The Virgin receives the children, the air is filled with the sounds of thousands chanting the Rosary (Hail, Mary! - Ave Maria!), as one by one, the children emerge from their homes to join the others. They are six little visionary rock stars! I pictured this event as a scene in the opera: a joyful Ave Maria sung by the chanting crowd as the children are trotted through town protected by a phalanx of guards, climaxing as they all arrive at the chapel and, in the electrifying silence at the conclusion, The Virgin appears! (This explains the fermata on the last bar of silence in the music.)

Part II: around the same time as the opera on The Visionaries was unfolding in 1994, Vancouver's Elektra Women's Choir commissioned me to make a new work for them in celebration of the Canadian Music Centre. I decided to craft an Ave Maria as a work in six parts - six children, six parts - that celebrates the feminine in the Divine. And what began as a meditation on The Virgin (as mother) transformed into a work about women as women and a celebration of the work that women do to make the world go round. The music is dedicated to my mother as a 65th birthday present (in 1994), but she merely represents all the extraordinary women who do all of the work - day after day after day after day. In all cultures, the repetitive work of women is endless, yet they do it with a love that knows no bounds. The women who sing this music know this because they embody the love that is celebrated in it. My mother, now creeping up on 89, sees Ave Maria as a gift that keeps on giving. Knowing this, one can understand why I have rejected many entreaties to arrange Ave Maria for mixed choir. It's sung by women or children - both of which suit my original inspiration. I'm happy this way.

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