The four most controversial pieces of wedding music
Summer is the most common season for weddings. Brides and grooms are busy planning their weddings months and years in advance, making sure they have the right colors, the right venue, and the right music for the first dance.
However, one area in wedding planning is often less researched: the wedding ceremony music. Many couples use standard wedding ceremony music, including Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" and Wagner's "Bridal Chorus." What the couples do not know is that some of those standard pieces have been very controversial.
Here are four pieces of music that have weathered some debate about their appropriateness for a wedding ceremony — especially if the ceremony is held in a church.
1. Felix Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Typically used in wedding recessionals, this piece has sparked controversy due to its literary origins. The Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm IV commissioned Mendelssohn to compose incidental music for many pieces that were based upon Greek mythology and tragedy in order to revive the genre of literature and performance. Among his commissions, in 1843 Mendelssohn composed a setting for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; the setting comprises twelve musical numbers and a finale. The plot of Shakespeare's play focuses on a pagan god and goddess and is filled with fairies, magic, and fantasy. Due to the piece's pagan, fantastic inspirations, some leaders and musicians — particularly in Roman Catholic churches — have found the piece to be inappropriate for a Christian religious ceremony.
2. Richard Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin
Commonly used in wedding processionals to announce the bride on what should be a joyous day, this piece plays a less cheerful role in Wagner's opera Lohengrin. Wagner came upon the opera's inspiration around 1845 when he took interest in the legend of the Holy Grail through the poems of Wolfram von Eschenbach and the anonymous epic of Lohengrin. Composed by 1848, Lohengrin features "Bridal Chorus" as the prelude to a very short-lived, doomed marriage between Elsa and Lohengrin. The piece is sung by women serenading Elsa to the bridal suite after the wedding in Act III. It's not the happiest of allusions — and many find it distasteful to be reminded of the notoriously anti-Semitic Wagner during a wedding ceremony (or ever).
3. Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" from The Mission
Italian composer Ennio Morricone is primarily known for his film scores. In the 1970s, he began experimenting with a technique that developed melody, rhythm, or harmony into "modules," each focusing on a particular instrument. His most extended use of this practice was used for the oboe in The Mission (1986). When the melody "Gabriel's Oboe" is introduced in the context of the movie, 18th century South American missionary Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is exploring when he finds solitude within nature. He begins to play but is then surrounded by natives who are at first afraid of the instrument but then became curious. For many, this piece of music evokes not endless love, but the tragedies of the Americas' colonization.
4. Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria"
Often used as a prelude or processional piece, Schubert's "Ave Maria" is one of seven songs composed for his setting of Sir Walter Scott's epic Lady of the Lake. The epic was published in 1810 and tells the story of the conflict between King James V and the clan Douglas, resulting in the king banishing the clan from his reign. Ellen Douglas, the daughter, seeks shelter with Roderick Dhu in his castle on Loch Katrine with her exiled father.
Schubert's "Ave Maria," originally titled "Ellens Gesang III," is sung when Ellen is in the woods praying to the Virgin Mary for help and is overheard by Roderick Dhu as he heads off to battle. The original lyric is sung to Virgin Mary for help and guidance.
Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen, Ob Menschen noch so grausam sind. O Jungfrau, sieh der Jungfrau Sorgen.
(Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish'd, outcast and reviled — Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer)
Since the original was published, other lyric settings have been written for this melody to make it more versatile. Not originally written with Christian intentions, the first line of the song suggested setting the Hail Mary to Schubert's tune. In 1940, Disney's Fantasia paired Schubert's melody with Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain." The lyric in this version was written in English by Rachel Field, who modified the lyric to have a matrimonial context and message:
Ave Maria! Heaven's Bride. The bells ring out in solemn praise for you, the anguish and the pride. The living glory of our nights, of our nights and days. The Prince of Peace your arms embrace, while hosts of darkness fade and cower. Oh save us, mother full of grace, in life and in our dying hour. Ave Maria!
What do you think of when you hear this composition: the desperate cry of an exiled bride, or a beautiful hymn to a loving mother?
Eleanor Peterson is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In May, she received a Master's of Library and Information Science and a Master's of Music History and Music Literature. She is a horn player; her favorite composers include Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, and Rimsky-Korsakov.