Singing in Latin: Why We Do It

psalm149

If English is our native language, why do church choirs often sing anthems in Latin? We know that all pre-Reformation worship, liturgy and music was conducted in Latin; indeed, the Protestant Reformation brought liturgy to the people in their native tongues. And though it took the Roman Catholic Church a few more years (about 413 years, actually), the Second Vatican Council brought the Mass to the people in their native tongues as well.

The publishing of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer in English was huge… huge! For the first time, the top had been taken off of the liturgical cookie jar. Rather than the faithful simply sitting in the nave and listening to the celebrant rattle off the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin, which was not understood by the illiterate, the words of the blessing (consecration) of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ could then be completely understood by all. I have often wondered what that must have felt like… huge!

Leading up to this era, all the beautiful choral music – 15th-  and 16th-century masses, motets, chants, songs, anthems – had obviously been written with Latin texts. As composers do, the syntax of the texts, the rise and fall of the musical lines, and the emphases of compositional techniques with respect to these texts were carefully crafted using the Latin texts. English vocal music for the most part was secular.

We also know that translating from one language to another is not a perfect science. A prime example of this is our local parish custom of reading the Acts lesson on the Day of Pentecost, the portion that describes the apostles “speaking in their own tongues as the Spirit gave them the ability.” When we read this Acts lesson in the various languages simultaneously, no two languages finish at the exact same time. Some translations are longer, and some are shorter.

The same goes for choral music composed in an original language. If the piece “sings” better in its original language, detriment can be done to the beauty of the music by an attempt to “wedge” a translation into the originally crafted notes. Moreover, linguists teach us that all the Romance languages share Latin as their root, even English – another point to not forget.

Yes, some translations are, indeed, successful and work well. One of my favorite pieces comes to mind: from the Brahms Requiem, the fourth movement “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” also sings beautifully with the English translation “How lovely is thy dwelling place.” Brahms’ rise and fall of the initial choral phrase crests on the word “Wohnungen” and “dwelling place” equally successfully. Such is not always the case; I would maintain that it is somewhat rare.

I love the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healing miracles. In this Sunday’s (Sept. 6) gospel, Jesus heals the woman’s little daughter by simply telling her mother to go home, where she found her daughter delivered from the demon and lying on the bed. He next heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Though Jesus told the disciples to not tell anyone, “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” (Mark 24:36)

This “zealous proclamation” led me to a great Psalm of rejoicing and thanksgiving for this Sunday’s anthem, the Giuseppe Pitoni (1657-1743) setting of Psalm 149, “Cantate Domino.” This brief but delightful anthem is a favorite of choirs worldwide. (And it “sings” better in Latin!)

Cantate Domino canticum novum;
laus ejus in ecclesia sanctorum.
Laetetur Israël in eo qui fecit eum,
et filii Sion exsultent in rege suo.

Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle:
let his praise be in the church of the saints.
Let Israel rejoice in him that made him:
and let the children of Sion be joyful in their king.

-Psalm 149:1-2

Click here to read an article on The Book of Common Prayer (1549), with texts and facsimiles of the original old English.

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