Magazine article The Spectator

Latin Charade

Magazine article The Spectator

Latin Charade

Article excerpt

I have always had trouble making the connection between the antique world and modern education. Given that the survival of Latin tags in official instruction was ridiculed by some of our finest minds fully hundreds of years ago, I can't see why anyone should be told these days that they have done something `honoris causa' or `summa cum laude'. I still don't know exactly what these phrases mean; but it is clear that the organisation dishing them out hopes to dignify itself by referring to the milieu of Vergil and the like. It is obvious that this approach must deaden the daily lives of our students unacceptably.

Perhaps if you were studying rhetoric, logic or grammar, you might be inspired by the sight of a bust of Cicero on the premises. He would look old, of course - no specs or open-necked shirt, no comradely glint in the eye - but certainly the relevance of his being there would be more or less self-explanatory, and a Latin quotation for once entirely appropriate. The same could just about be advanced for Vitruvius and architecture, Praxiteles and sculpture, to say nothing of the Sth-century philosophers and mathematicians. I don't really see why we should for ever be knocked over the head with the achievements of these great men, but if one wishes to apostrophise the leading thinkers in one's line of business, these are amongst the obvious candidates.

But one cannot do this with music. We hardly know anything about what was achieved in music in ancient times, nor about who achieved it, which unfortunately has not prevented the Cicero bust principle from being applied to the decor of many European conservatories of music.

The starting point for this article was a day spent in the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. I instance this institution because it provides an extreme example of what I'm talking about; but the general style of it is familiar from music colleges in Britain. The sight which greets the visitor in the entrance hall is truly astonishing. The overall design is modelled on the aula of a Roman villa, all careful symmetry and tactfully positioned columns. In itself, it would be an attractive space, albeit a little incongruous in the shell of a heavy, featureless 1876 stone exterior, if it were not for the presence of about 15 statues and busts. …

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