Friday, 8 November 2013

Ellen's third song

It is probably clear by now that I am quite emotional. Still I am pretty sure I would never build up anything sensational out of it, such as Stendhal syndrome, for example: too much reason, age and ‘life experience’ preventing any encounters with unexpected ecstasy, I believe. Yet it is not uncommon that emotions overwhelm me in front of exceptional beauty.

On Wednesday night, when listening to the award-winning Finnish lyric soprano Soile Isokoski interpret the original German version of Franz Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ emotions completely overtook me. I couldn’t but stretch out for my handbag and a handkerchief to dry the tears I had no hope of holding back.

The handout given at the entrance included translations of all the foreign lyrics of the concert. Those of ‘Ave Maria’ made me curious. In fact, Schubert’s original version has nothing to do with the Latin ‘Ave Maria’ the melody is now so commonly connected with. The original context is more earthly and the original title as simple as Ellens dritter Gesang or ‘Ellen’s Third Song’.

It is part of a series of seven songs Schubert composed in 1825 based on Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’, which is a fictional story of King James V of Scotland waging war trying to unite the clans. Ellen, the heroine, is the daughter of a supporter to the king. She happens to rescue the disguised king into her boat; hence the title. She is offered marriage by one of the leading rebels, which her father refuses, and therefore has to escape with him to live in a cave. There she fears for her father’s life and sings her third song praying Virgin Mary to save him from the enemies.

Schubert used the German poem loosely translated from the original by Adam Storck. The later adoption of ‘Ellen’s Third Song’ as the tune for the traditional Roman Catholic prayer Ave Maria may simply have sprung from its opening and closing words. It certainly didn’t do any harm the melody is so heavenly. Several versions have emerged during the years having made Schubert’s Op 52, No 6 one of his most popular and beloved compositions.

The concert was a charity fund-raising event arranged by my sister-in-law’s Lions Club in Järvenpää. Ms Isokoski, accompanied by pianist Ilkka Paananen, performed lieds by Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss plus songs by three of our own composers: a few by Leevi Madetoja and Toivo Kuula from the early 20th century as well as a humorous series of recipes for a pie by the contemporary Ilkka Kuusisto.

We enjoyed them all. But if ever anything was divine it was Ms Isokoski’s ‘Ave Maria’, even more touching live than on this video I found. She is a true interpreter, an Ellen of our time.

Ave Maria or Ellen’s Third Song (Ellens dritter Gesang)
from the Song Cycle on the Lady of the Lake (Liederzyklus vom Fräulein vom See)
translated from Sir Walter Scott’s poem by Adam Storck

Ave Maria! Jungfrau mild,
Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen,
Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild
Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen.
Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen,
Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind.
O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen,
O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! Unbefleckt!
Wenn wir auf diesen Fels hinsinken
Zum Schlaf, und uns dein Schutz bedeckt
Wird weich der harte Fels uns dünken.
Du lächelst, Rosendüfte wehen
In dieser dumpfen Felsenkluft,
O Mutter, höre Kindes Flehen,
O Jungfrau, eine Jungfrau ruft!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! Reine Magd!
Der Erde und der Luft Dämonen,
Von deines Auges Huld verjagt,
Sie können hier nicht bei uns wohnen,
Wir woll’n uns still dem Schicksal beugen,
Da uns dein heil’ger Trost anweht;
Der Jungfrau wolle hold dich neigen,
Dem Kind, das für den Vater fleht.
Ave Maria!

Hymn to the Virgin by Sir Walter Scott

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast, and reviled –
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem this down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer.
Mother, list a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! stainless styled!
Foul demons of the earth and air,
From this their wonted haunt exiled,
Shall flee before thy presence fair.
We bow us to our lot of care,
Beneath thy guidance reconciled;
Hear for a maid a maiden’s prayer,
And for a father hear a child!
Ave Maria!


  1. Ehdottoman ihana tarina, ja kaunis on kyllä laulukin! Kiitos ja mukavaa viikonvaihdetta!

    1. Kiitos samoin! ¨Hiukan" värittömämpäähän täällä on kuin siellä teillä päin, mutta eiköhän sisulla ja pienillä kulttuuriruiskeilla tästäkin talvikaudesta selvitä.

  2. How very beautiful that was! Thank you.

    1. You are most welcome. I was rather thrilled when I found this video. I've been listening to it daily since then and it makes me so happy every time.