This week our curators of the Song of the Day blog are the Artistic Administration staff of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts (our next concert, “At Home,” which will take place both at Caramoor and at Merkin Hall, features Caramoor’s 2016 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars). Today’s selection comes from Caramoor’s Manager of Artistic Planning, Ellie Gisler Murphy:
Ave Maris Stella – Edvard Grieg (1898)
My husband and I both come from formal classical musical backgrounds and as a result, have gathered a large contingent of incredibly talented friends. As we planned our wedding, we knew we wanted to utilize these high quality (and free!) musicians to create a sacred space in which to bless our marital bond. Choosing the music was far more difficult – we are both spiritual people but come from opposite ends of a spiritual spectrum. He is a by-the-book Catholic and I am an increasingly conflicted Unitarian. When we decided it was appropriate to be married within a Unitarian congregation, we felt just as strongly that we wanted to honor my husband and many of our family with sacred texts as long as they still coincided with the liberal and feminist beliefs of the Unitarian community. To that end, we chose two settings of Marian texts to be sung by a male chorus– Ave Maria (Rachmaninoff) and Ave Maris Stella, my favorite setting of which is by the great Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg.
I have long loved Grieg and have also spent a great deal of time in Norway, but somehow didn’t find out until after the wedding that Grieg himself was a Unitarian. The composer tended towards deep religious crisis throughout his life and following the death of his parents and a momentary breakup of his marriage, turned to his wife’s Unitarianism as a vehicle to explore the great theological questions of life and what comes after. His music touched on sacred texts only rarely during his prolific lifetime, dedicating himself instead to the Norwegian people, folk tales, and the mountainous landscape of his beloved country. Ave Maris Stella , originally a solo song, was rewritten for double chorus and published in 1898 as the second in Grieg’s “Two Sacred Choruses” . The miniature work is rarely written about in Grieg biographies, so it’s difficult to assume what exact importance Grieg himself placed on the piece. What is indisputable is the great care with which the piece is crafted, evidence perhaps of the reverence that Grieg still held toward the most sacred of women in spite of his sustained religious doubt. The piece is wholly sacred, pious, and somehow, in the same breath, soaring and joyful.
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, performing Edvard Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella