Challenging Performance: The Book. 23-2 Ave Maria

23.2 Schubert/Gilchrist/Katz: Ave Maria

In Chapter 18.2, comparing WCM and classical theatre’s approaches to performing texts, I included a link to an acting exercise in which the question ‘would you like a cup of tea?’ is asked in 24 different ways in (slightly under) one minute. Wondering how many different performances a classical musician could give of the same score I asked friends and colleagues what they thought might be possible. I was astonished but also delighted when Diana Gilchrist (soprano) and Shelley Katz (piano) responded by producing, among other things, this remarkable cycle of ten very different performances starting from Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ score. In so doing they demonstrate the case I’ve been making all along in this book; that it is possible for realisations of canonical scores to be much more diverse than we have imagined, and therefore that musical life could be quite different and a lot more varied, aiming to offer significantly new readings of texts, not simply to make even better performances of the reading that’s currently approved.

In Chapter 20.2 (‘How?’)  I suggested that a good way to generate fresh views of a score is to think in terms of character and narrative, as musicians often do, but taking those images and stories away from the norm so as to see what’s possible. Here Diana imagines ten different stages of a woman’s life from childhood to old age, each a moment of autobiography for the character who is singing this prayer, picking up on hints in the text and also in the ways in which we’ve used this song in various cultural contexts: hearing, then learning it as children, using it in various ways in adult life. These moments are characterised by a state of mind, which acts as a heuristic—a quick means for the singer to conceptualise and actualise what would otherwise be impossibly complex combinations of technical moves.[1] In the analyses that follow each sound file below, Diana has identified these technical moves in some depth, which helps to focus attention on the kinds of details that, together, do metaphorical work in expressive performance. You’ll see there how systematically she has varied the parameters of each performance.[2]

It’s a tour-de-force of performance planning and expressive singing, and offers (I feel) a wonderful model for the extent of difference that might be possible, even for one musician today, without straying beyond current performance style.


Ave Maria! Jungfrau mild,                    Hail, Mary! Maiden mild! 
Erhöre einer Jungfrau Flehen,                Oh listen to a maiden's pleading;
Aus diesem Felsen starr und wild             From this rock, unyielding and wild,
Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen.             My prayer will go to you.
Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen,          Safe may we sleep until the morning,
Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind.            Though men be so cruel.
O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen,        Oh Maiden, see this maiden's sorrows. 
O Mutter, hör ein bittend Kind!              Oh Mother, hear a pleading child! 
Ave Maria!                                   Hail Mary!


  • Age: ~3
  • Pure, straight, light tone, with occasional breathiness
  • Almost no vibrato
  • Fastest, steady tempo (skipping)
  • Don’t sing perfectly in tune
  • p/mp dynamics
  • Don’t breathe in all the right places, break words
  • Drop text, hummm, Sprechstimme, mix up the text
  • No portamento or rubato
  • No ornaments
  • Light-hearted, innocent, happy
  • Outdoors, happily playing alone (dancing, skipping)


  • Age: ~8
  • Light, mostly straight tone, but occasionally breathy forward placement
  • Occasional vibrato betrays nervousness
  • Moderately slow, earnest tempo
  • Pitch accuracy slightly laboured
  • p/mp range
  • Slightly jagged rhythm, occasional very slight rubato
  • Mostly clean, legato phrases, one breath in wrong place
  • Serious in “grausam” and “bittend kind”
  • No ornaments
  • Serious, awed
  • Relief in last phrase (made it!)
  • Public (in church); very focused – don’t move


  • Age: ~ 15
  • Light, young sound, occasionally slightly breathy
  • Fast vibrato
  • Fast tempo
  • Accurate pitch
  • mp/mf range
  • Accurate rhythm, occasional early entrances, especially first one, very slight rubato
  • Flowing legato, complete phrases, feathered phrase-ends
  • Consonants very early, clear, impassioned
  • Most ornaments, very little portamento
  • Joyous, impetuous
  • Private, alone (bedroom)


  • Age: ~20
  • Lyric tone, no ‘colorations’
  • Fast vibrato
  • Moderately slow tempo
  • Accurate pitch
  • mp/mf range
  • Sing triplets correctly, occasional early entrances
  • Wall-to-wall legato, arching phrases, no micro-phrasing, very slight rubato
  • Very few word accents
  • Most ornaments, very little portamento
  • Joyous but solemn, proud
  • Not alone (possibly confiding)


  • Age: ~25
  • light, emotional, occasionally breathy tone, neutral placement
  • Fast vibrato
  • Very fast tempo
  • Accurate pitch
  • mf range
  • Rhythm more text-driven
  • Mostly legato phrasing
  • Highlight important words: “flehen”, “starr”, “sorgen”
  • Most ornaments, slight cries, tiny scoops, occasional portamento
  • Horrified, fearful
  • Not alone (with other women)
  • Piano: micro-pauses before each beat, right and uneven rhythm (hesitancy) no pedal


  • Age: ~25
  • Tone colourless at first, then almost sobbing
  • Almost no vibrato at first, then uneven emotion induced
  • Fairly slow tempo
  • Inaccuracy in pitch related to emotion
  • Very wide dynamic range
  • Total rubato – disregard rhythm, emotion- and text-driven
  • Several broken phrases
  • Slurred words: “sicher bis zum Morgen”, repeat “schlaffen”
  • Sprechstimme, sobbing, extreme glottal attacks, screaming on “sieh,sorgan”
  • Disbelieving, numb
  • Private, alone


  • Age: ~30
  • Harsh, edgy tone
  • Not much vibrato
  • Moderately fast tempo
  • Emotion-related inaccuracy in pitch
  • mf range
  • Jagged, uneven rhythm, emotion- and text-driven
  • Exaggerated text, some dropped
  • Sprechstimme, exaggerated glottal attacks, text-driven pitch glides
  • Angry, disillusioned, sardonic
  • Public


  • Age: ~ 40
  • Straight tone, almost detached, occasionally breathy
  • Very little vibrato except in final “Maria”
  • Fairly slow tempo
  • Mostly accurate pitch
  • p/mp range
  • Rhythm a little uneven, emotion- and text-driven
  • Occasionally broken phrasing
  • Painfully sensitive awareness of text
  • Some ornaments, very occasional portamento
  • Resigned, weighed-down
  • Private, alone


  • Age: ~50
  • Warm, natural tone
  • Natural, free, uncontrolled vibrato
  • Moderate tempo
  • Accurate pitch
  • mp-mf crescendi and decrescendi
  • Smoothed rhythms except proper rhythm on “Ave Maria”, some rubato
  • Sustained legato phrasing, driving ends of phrases to early consonants
  • Vowels pure and distinct
  • Ornaments, graceful portamento
  • Quiet, joyful, earnest, hopeful
  • Public


  • Age: ~80
  • Occasionally slightly darker tone
  • Wider, inconsistent vibrato
  • Very slow tempo
  • Age-related pitch inaccuracy
  • p/mp range, small crescendi and decrescendi
  • Every note and pause has meaning, not a second of failed concentration
  • Smoothed rhythms, lots of rubato
  • Very long legato phrasing, occasionally broken
  • Word painting/shaping; “ob menschen noch so grausam” (quietly: compassion, sadness, regret)
  • Most ornaments, portamento, slight glottal attacks
  • Serene, peaceful, wise, quietly joyous
  • Public

Continue to Chapter 23.3: ‘Further transgressive performances’

Back to Chapter 23 list of contents

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[1]  For more on this see Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, and Prior, Helen M. 2014. Heuristics for Expressive Performance. In ed. Dorottya Fabian, Emery Schubert and Renee Timmers, Expressiveness in Music Performance: Empirical approaches across styles and cultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 34-57.

[2] The same details will also be found in Diana’s own page at, accessible via ‘Interviews & Recordings’ in the main menu.

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