Photo by Ed Schipul

There is a good chance you have heard this beautiful piece, unique as it is to have only two words, “Ave Maria.”  It does not contain the full prayer from Luke 1, sometimes called the “Angelic Salutation” or the “Hail Mary.”  It is on Andrea Bocelli’s Christmas CD, so there are thousands of copies out there.  It is usually ascribed to Guilio Caccini, an Italian composer (1551-1618), but it is not late Renaissance or early Baroque in style.  Why is there a mystery to this song’s origins, and why does this mystery matter?

Vladimir Vavilov was born into Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1925. During the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin closed thousands of churches and tortured and imprisoned millions of believers. It is hard for some to imagine a country which can make it a crime to teach a prayer to a child, but that was the system as enforced by secret police.  To write an “Ave Maria” in most of Vavilov’s lifetime would have been considered “counter-revolutionary activity” and could have resulted in loss of job, arrest, or exile to Siberia. Vavilov worked as an editor at the state’s publishing house, Melodiya, so he had a lot to lose.  He wrote, recorded, and published this lovely piece in 1970 under the name of “Anonymous.”  Vavilov died in poverty in 1973 of pancreatic cancer.  The lovely piece was ascribed, supposedly by organist Mark Shakhim, one of the players on an early recording, to Caccini as a newly discovered piece!

That does not make sense unless you understand how upside-down life was in the Soviet Union.  The communist system was a lying house of cards.  Any competing worldview was viciously attacked, especially religious ideas that offered hope and redemption through a source other than the state.  If you think about it, the Incarnation is a very subversive idea.  It was easier for those responsible for the recording of this sacred piece to claim it was a newly discovered work by a musical innovator long dead than to admit to “anti-Soviet” or “counter-revolutionary” activities.  Once a fib becomes an official story in such a system, it is easier to repeat the fib than to reveal or explain the truth.

Vavilov’s “Ave Maria” is a meditation on two almost forbidden words.  Vavilov did not dare to have the singer sing the entire prayer.  The Soviet state hated the child Jesus as much as King Herod did in Matthew 1.  Nonetheless, the piece was not forgotten.  Its cover story as a newly discovered work by a Baroque pioneer kept it from dying.  Irina Arkhipova, the great Russian opera star, recorded it in 1987 during glasnost.  Inessa Galante, the Latvian opera star, made the song internationally popular in 1994, and since then it has been recorded by Charlotte Church, Sumi Jo, Hayley Westenra, and numerous others.  The song’s strange career can only be explained by the despair of the communist years and the stubbornness of great art and artists.

Here is Galante singing it, a song of hope born in darkness and first published at great risk:

Finally, here is a choir of French youth singing Vavilov’s “Ave Maria,” appreciating it for its beauty but blissfully ignorant of the song’s history.

The two words of eternal longing do not form a complete sentence, but perhaps they do not need to.