Composed for four-voice female choir and orchestra (strings and paired winds) with an organ part to be used in lieu of an orchestra, the Ave Maria and the contemporaneous Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13, are Brahms' first attempts to combine vocal and orchestral forces. Both were composed in the autumn of 1858. The Ave Maria was first performed on December 2, 1859 in Hamburg by Brahms' Frauenchor (Women's Chorus), under his direction.
Brahms' early preference for female voices is evident in his selection of forces for both the Ave Maria and the Begräbnisgesang. His choice of female chorus was not a practical matter dictated by his direction of his Frauenchor in Hamburg, for both of these works were written before he took that position.
Evidence suggests that Brahms conceived and wrote the organ part of the Ave Maria first, expanding it for orchestra only later. This may account for the rather calculated manner in which instruments are used, especially when compared to the Choruses, Op. 17, in which the female voices are supported by the unique combination of horns and harp. In the Ave Maria, the upper strings often double the voice parts, clouding the female vocal tone color.
Brahms freely repeats several passages of the text, including an Offertory from the Roman Catholic liturgy. Each time the words "Ave Maria" appear, they are set to the same melody, which, in the very opening, is presented antiphonally by the high and low voices. When the worshipers ask Maria to speak on the their behalf, the chorus sings in rhythmic unison, making the text declamation as clear as possible. After several repetitions of this line, however, the opening melody returns for the final intonation of "Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis." Aside from a hint of G major in the middle and a touch of F minor near the close, the piece remains firmly in F major throughout, its clearly articulated 6/8 meter creating a rocking feel.