Thursday, May 28, 2009

Amo linguam Latinam

That would translate "I love the Latin language." Pentecost is approaching, and it is the Sunday that churches most often consider or celebrate the polyglot world we live in. I've been to churches where the Gospel lesson is read in multiple languages. The main lesson I've taken away from this: it's generally boring to hear people speak in a language you can't understand, much less three or four languages you can't understand.

That's why I do understand when people ask things like, "Why does the choir have to sing all this Latin?!" It can be frustrating, boring, even meaningless to sing or hear music that you can't understand. But as a musician, I still think it's vitally important that we do hear some pieces in foreign languages (primarily Latin), for a few reasons:

First, music is different from speech. We can intuit the meaning of a piece of music from the melody, harmony, and structure as well as the text. The best music enhances and transcends the text.

Second, some of the best choral literature is in Latin, and translation is a task that ranges from extremely difficult to impossible. Even if a brilliant translator can line up the syllable count and create poetry in English based on the original text, it still won't line up properly so that the musical imagery and climaxes occur at the appropriate points in the text. If we want to sing the best music of the past millenium, we're going to need to sing in a foreign language now and then.

Third, Latin in particular was the language of the church for hundreds and hundreds of years. Martin Luther was certainly fluent in it, and any serious student of theology spends several semesters learning ancient languages. That's one reason that the Bethel buttons say "Think Hebrew." We don't need to be fluent, but language does affect the way we think. Knowing just a few words can unlock the meaning of a text. (What a great reason to sign up for Bethel Bible study.)

I know, I know, learning Latin (or Greek or Hebrew or Chinese or even Spanish) isn't fun or cool. It isn't easy. But keeping an open mind and spending a little effort can yield huge dividends. After all, many English words are built on Latin roots. I don't expect any congregation to become fluent, but wouldn't it be great if over the course of several years we could all learn the ordinary parts of the service - the kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, and agnus. Just five pieces of text. This summer our services will be built around the text of the creed, and you can expect an occasional snippet of Latin here on the blog. Just enough to aid our understanding of the text and the music. I hope that with an open mind you can find it interesting, even inspiring, and that it will only enrich your relationship with church music.

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