Can Music Help Your Latin?

Gavin McCormick

The story goes that a fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made a trip to the Vatican in 1770. It was no ordinary trip. While there, Mozart listened to a bewitching piece of music – Miserere Mei, Deus, a setting of Psalm 50/51 (depending upon the Bible consulted) in Latin, composed by the Italian priest and composer Grigorio Allegri (c.1582–1652).

The Miserere had only ever been performed within the Vatican itself, in the Sistine Chapel, since the time of its composition nearly 150 years previously. But from just one hearing of Allegri’s masterpiece, Mozart managed to commit the whole thing to memory, and then to transcribe it. The secret of its music, its harmonies, its multiple parts, was thus revealed, and would soon be known to the world at large. Allegri’s Miserere would no longer be performed only in the Vatican: this haunting rendering of the psalm, with its soaring high C’s, would soon be performed widely across Europe and beyond.

We aren’t all young Mozarts. To learn a piece of music, especially if one is to commit a complex work to memory, typically involves practice and repetition; perhaps it will often also involve habit, learning aids, the instruction of a teacher, even the input of peers. Mozart, we are assured, committed the music of the Miserere to memory on one hearing – but could he have done the same with its words? This seems very doubtful: whereas the music of the Miserere involves a good deal of repetition, and reliance on some stock formulae, the words of the psalm contain no such regular features.

Portrait of Mozart at 13, Giambettino Cignaroli (attrib.), 1769 (priv. coll.)

Over recent months on Antigone Journal, there has been something of a debate about the ways Latin is learnt in schools. Is it best taught as a living language, as one which can (even should) be spoken? Or should it be taught in a quite different way, to enable its learners to read (and/or write) it, but not to speak it, so that it is not treated as another ‘modern’ language? Melinda Letts has made the first case; Judy Nesbit the second. We have also seen John Claughton suggest that, if Latin grammar is not taught to beginners in a rigorous fashion, students are left with a piecemeal understanding which leads them to resort to memorising and rote-learning, rather than being able to read set-text materials fluently and with confidence.

To add into the mix a more general perspective on the problems of teaching and learning Latin in our current milieu, there was also Stephen Fry’s observation, published at Antigone’s launch last March, that “even though it’s deeply unfashionable to know any Latin [and Greek], it still seems like the worst kind of showing off [for those who do] to make any public use of it.”

The suggestion of the present article is that it might be productive to look to the language of Church music as a way to continue the conversation on each of the above fronts. I will rely on some personal experience, while shamelessly referencing also some of my favourite choral works. By attending Catholic Mass on a weekly basis as a young child, and later being a chorister in an Anglican cathedral for a period of around five years, I built up a close familiarity with the use of Latin in two separate contexts. The latter context was particularly formative. In the cathedral I got to know countless pieces of music while participating in seven services each week, for eleven months of each year (to say nothing of rehearsals, concerts, recordings and the rest).

The quire and nave of Winchester Cathedral (looking west), Hampshire, UK.

The reality of getting to know Christian liturgy through music in these contexts, as in many others across the country and indeed in the wider world, was one of singing and speaking in English, but also in Latin. In the case of Sunday morning services, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei (main constituent parts of the spoken or sung liturgy of the Catholic Mass or Anglican Eucharist) were performed in English, in Latin, or in some combination of the two languages.

An obvious consequence of the use of these two languages was to render more familiar the Latin words and phrases. You might not understand precisely the grammar you were dealing with when saying or singing these phrases, but you would gain a sense of how they mapped onto one another, how particular words in Latin corresponded to particular words in English.

I am sure that repeat performance of the liturgy – in both Latin and English – leaves many people who couldn’t tell an Ablative Absolute from an Indirect Statement nevertheless able to understand big chunks of Latin. What’s more, this knowledge can be somewhat transferrable, insofar as it can help decode the Latin one might encounter on a more occasional basis in other pieces of music or liturgy. 

To take one example from very many possible cases, consider the beautiful motet ‘Videntes Stellam’, as set to music by the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899–1963). The Latin of the motet runs as follows:

Videntes stellam Magi
gavisi sunt gaudio magno:
et intrantes domum
obtulerunt Domino aurum,
thus et myrrham.

The deponent verb gavisi sunt might prove impossible for anyone without a formal training in Latin to decode (as a third-person masculine plural perfect indicative of the semi-deponent verb gaudeo). But many of the other phrases are readily recognisable and knowable to anyone with a passing familiarity with Christian storytelling in its Latin or English versions, so that even if being able to give a precise translation might prove difficult, a feel for the general meaning of the words might nevertheless be possible.

A further example: at Anglican Evensong, a staple feature is the Nunc Dimittis – the name given to a passage taken from Luke’s Gospel (2:29), where the elderly Simeon approaches and acclaims Jesus with the following words (as rendered in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer):

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

In many musical settings of the Nunc Dimittis, the words of Simeon are rendered in just this way. But when dealing with the stunning setting of Gustav Holst, one is confronted by the Latin of the Vulgate:

“Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.”

My own experience as a boy coming across these words was that it was straightforward to understand them – both as individual words and phrases – despite lacking a detailed understanding of how the grammar tying them together works. Even now, as a Classics teacher, I look twice at the grammar of salutare, which seems at first glance to be an infinitive (from saluto, “I greet“), when in fact it is a peculiar neuter substantive from the third-declension adjective salutaris (“healthy”), a usage not known in Classical Latin. Surely many others have a similar sense of being able to know and recognise Latin words and phrases, through knowledge of counterpart phrases in a different language.

These are brief and experimental reflections. I suppose what I am suggesting is that, however important grammatical fundamentals are, it is nevertheless possible to build up a good if imperfect understanding of the Latin language without them; that, however valuable treating Latin as a spoken, living language might be, treating it as a language that can in fact be learned in stock formulae, as part of a living tradition of shared expression, might also offer some interesting lessons; that, however much we might worry that pupils are learning to read Latin by looking at English alongside their Latin, this nevertheless mirrors in an interesting way what church worshippers do when dealing with Latin. In the last respect there are doubtless clear parallels to be drawn with what happens with ancient languages in other religious traditions.

The east end of the Sistine Chapel, decorated with the frescoes of Michelangelo (ceiling, 1508–12; Last Judgment on altar wall, late 1530s), The Vatican.

In short, there is scope, I think, to develop an interesting conversation about the different forms that ‘living Latin’ takes, and the different mechanisms by which it is preserved. The classroom is not the only context to consider. Nor indeed is the ecclesiastical context: we might consider also, for instance, the ways in which Latin mottoes and other isolated Latin words and phrases are repeated in the world around us in ways that make a degree of familiarity, and a degree of understanding, of the language possible (even in the absence of formal instruction).

Performance of music and liturgy offers something important and interesting to reflect upon for anyone who wishes to invite 21st-century pupils into dialogue with the culture and tradition that the Latin language represents. Moreover, we will find cause to doubt the words of Stephen Fry if we reflect that to make public use of Latin while performing Allegri, Holst or Poulenc will not seem at all like the “worst kind of showing off”. Rather, depending on who you are, it can be a straightforward celebration of beautiful music, or an act of worship.

Gavin McCormick is Head of Classics at North London Collegiate School. His previous article, on the death of Creusa in Virgil’s Aeneid, can be read here.