The original words of Ave Maria (Hail Mary) were in English, being part of a poem called The Lady of the Lake, written in 1810 by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The poem drew on the romance of the legend regarding the 5th century British leader King Arthur, but transferred it to Scott's native Scotland. In 1825 during a holiday in Upper Austria, the composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set to music a prayer from the poem using a German translation by Adam Storck. Scored for piano and voice, it was first published in 1826 as "D839 Op 52 no 6." Schubert called his piece "Ellens dritter Gesang" (Ellen's third song) and it was written as a prayer to the Virgin Mary from a frightened girl, Ellen Douglas, who had been forced into hiding.
The song cycle proved to be one of Schubert's most financially successful works, the Austrian composer being paid by his publisher 20 pounds sterling, a sizable sum for a musical work in the 1820s. Though not written for liturgical services, the music proved to be inspirational to listeners, particularly Roman Catholics, and a Latin text was substituted to make it suitable for use in church. It is today most widely known in its Latin "Ave Maria" form.
In a letter from Schubert to his father and step-mother he writes about "Ave Maria" and the other songs in his "Lady of the Lake" cycle: "My new songs from Scott's Lady of the Lake especially had much success. They also wondered greatly at my piety, which I expressed in a hymn to the Holy Virgin and which, it appears, grips every soul and turns it to devotion."
This piece is not to be confused with the traditional Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox prayer "Hail Mary" or "Ave Maria" even though it is often sung to the melody of this piece.
In the UK two versions of "Ave Maria" have reached the Top 40, Shirley Bassey peaking at #31 in 1962 and Lesley Garrett and Amanda Thompson reached #16 in 1993.