The Latin Problem-How Much Does a Singer Really Need to Know?

By De'Ath, Leslie | Journal of Singing, May 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Latin Problem-How Much Does a Singer Really Need to Know?


De'Ath, Leslie, Journal of Singing


BECAUSE LATIN HAS NOT BEEN a vernacular language for more than a millennium, the approach to lyric diction for Latin solo and choral works must look to other sources than a standard dialect for authority, as one does for "living" languages. It is curious that much of the literature for musicians on Latin sung diction presumes exactly such a standard, apparently to be adopted worldwide for any sung Latin text, regardless of provenance. Perhaps more precisely, in some sources no acknowledgement of differing national standards of contemporary lyric Latin is provided or described. Hines and Moriarty espouse Roman Latin as the dialect appropriate for all sacred choral music, while allowing for intervocalic [z], and [e] in some environments.1 But, writing as he was for a North American audience, there is no mention of European national dialects of Latin. Harold Copeman's exhaustive treatise, Singing in Latin, changed the landscape by attempting to describe the bewildering variant forms of Latin that have been used for singing, from the beginnings of plainsong to the present.2 It was the first attempt to provide both a diachronic (historical) and synchronic (contemporary variants, based on location) overview of all forms of Latin.

The dilemma of what might constitute "proper" Latin pronunciation will be obvious to many readers: without a spoken norm in existence, a language will transform freely over time and place, at the whim of those who have occasion to speak or sing it, and with an inevitable tendency to converge with the local or regional vernacular in terms of phonological detail. Perhaps the pronunciation of Latin has received less attention than other languages simply because there are no native speakers around to complain. The unconscious articulation reflexes, present in the native language of the user, will naturally transfer into Latin, just as the speech habits of an English speaker will reveal themselves as a foreign accent in another language, unless consciously checked. Thus, the Latin of 12th century Germany will be distinct from that of the 18th or 21st century, and distinct in other ways from French or Italianate Latin. Over the centuries, choral traditions throughout the world have relied on nonprofessional musicians, both in the choir and conducting, and this has worked against the creation of established norms of pronunciation. Choral conductors, in the absence of such well defined norms, have tended to rely on instinct and their educational background and prior experience in setting policy for their choirs. This has had the effect of perpetuating traditions, whether defensible or not, and encouraging diversity in approach.

The Roman Catholic church has ensured the abiding presence of Latin, after its death as a vernacular language, to the present time. In the process, a standard of pronunciation was imposed upon it, so that the religious message could be understood throughout Christendom. This standard has been variously called "Roman Latin," "liturgical Latin," "ecclesiastical Latin," "church Latin," "plainchant Latin," and "medieval Latin." The standardizing and perpetuation of a prescribed single pronunciation of a language over time and place has never been more successful than that advocated by Catholicism. Until the Motu proprio of 1959, Latin remained the language of the world's church services, and is still in use in the Vatican and elsewhere. The terms "true" and "authentic" are often seen in reference to this pronunciation, stemming from the time of Pope Gregory. The maintenance of this single standard has required considerable oversight, incited passionate argumentation, and required regular admonition and periodic adjustment, as is seen in a letter Pope Pius X wrote to the Archbishop of Bourges in 1912.

[S]ince the promulgation of Our Motu proprio of November 22, 1903, on Sacred Music, great zeal has been displayed in the different dioceses of France to make the pronunciation of the Latin language approximate more closely to that used in Rome, and that, in consequence, it is sought to perfect, according to the best rules of art, the execution of the Gregorian melodies, brought back by Us to their ancient traditional form . …

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