MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Latin: Quo Vadis, Quo Vasisti?


The history of Latin as a world language, in Jürgen Leonhardt’s excellent account, involves a surprisingly diverse range of topics — many of which have an ongoing relevance that extends far beyond the use of Latin for educational purposes: the effects of globalization (ancient and contemporary) on the development of a language, the “diglossia” of literary and spoken languages, the interplay of emerging European nationalism with the status of Latin (not as linear as you might expect), the unexpected twists and turns of canon formation — and dissolution (likewise not a simple linear development). And, ultimately, the issue of cultural extinction and the inaccessibility of a vast fund of accumulated knowledge.

Indeed, the book is replete with information that seems even counterintuitive. The entire corpus of extant ancient Latin literature from the Roman period, for example, comprises “less than 0.01% of all extant Latin texts.” This is because Latin continued to be used for all manner of documents by, for example, cities and other seats of government. (In Hungary Latin was the language used for administration until the mid-nineteenth century.) Leonhardt estimates that, contrary to the widespread notion that scholars have only a limited field of Latin letters to keep combing over, “90% of all Latin texts are either completely unknown or known only by their title,” while “99% of all texts are unavailable in modern editions and 99.9% of these texts have never been translated.”

Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language includes an especially useful investigation of Latin’s fate in the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the first twinklings of the Renaissance. This topic, too, yields fascinating insights into the cultural history of the Middle Ages and contains important correctives to the Renaissance-centric narrative that tends to get repeated.


I was delighted to find a spotlight given to J.S. Bach. Leonhardt uses the example of his being hired for the position of cantor in Leipzig as an emblematic story of the quickly changing status of Latin in German-speaking lands during this period. He details the role competence in Latin played in the city council’s interview process when they had to decide which candidate to hire in 1723. “In 1700, Germany was the most Latin of all central European countries; by 1850, active use of Latin had been pushed aside,” writes Leonhardt.

Johann Heinrich Ernesti (1652-1729), the rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, “was completely a man of the scholarly Latin culture of the seventeenth century” — an exemplar of the kind of Latinity that was rapidly being swept aside. A distant relative, the philologist Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781), would later become rector. The second Ernesti was an educational reformist; though a staunch champion of the Latin classics, he was “of the opinion that Latin no longer had a role to play in everyday life and that it was better to write good German than bad Latin.” In 1736 Bach would have a notorious clash with Ernesti, who is usually portrayed as disparaging music.

Back to 1723: the duties of the position Bach was applying for included teaching Latin for four hours per week, just as his cantor predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, had done. Although he had not attended university, Bach actually had excellent Latin credentials (he even had to pass an oral exam in Latin on the tenets of Lutheranism). Still, they weren’t enough to satisfy what the Leipzig city councillors were looking for: “According to the extant documents,” Leonhardt remarks, “the deliberations about whether to appoint [Bach] cantor revolved around precisely this question.”

The offer went to Georg Philipp Telemann, who rejected it, as did Christoph Graupner; both composers were well-skilled in Latin. Eventually the council unanimously approved the vote for Bach, allowing him to hire another individual to take over the Latin classes so he could spend more time with his music. (Bach had to pay him out of his own salary: about 8%.)

“By hiring Bach in 1723,” concludes Leonhardt, “the Leipzig city council essentially set a precedent… In many areas, Latin was no longer indispensable; thus music and Latin were no longer as ‘linked’ as Telemann had believed in 1718. Even taking into account the personal nature of the dispute between Bach and [Johann August] Ernesti, it also signaled that an era had come to an end.”

Leonhardt offers intriguing observations about the shifting fortunes of Latin amid developments in nineteenth-century Germany. One has to do with the conflicting philhellenism that so marked the German neohumanists. (Think Friedrich Hölderlin or Eliza Marian Butler’s controversial 1935 book The Tyranny of Greece Over Germany.) “The proponents of neohumanism…tended to view Greek as the ‘original’ and the Latin culture of the Romans as a mere copy,” writes Leonhardt. “As a result, they accorded Greek art, language, and literature pride of place.”

4 T UMAX     PL-II            V1.5 [4]

The enthusiasm for the scientific study of languages, he argues, led to the new concept of Latin’s very “nonutility” in the modern world as a positive value: “Humboldt believed that, because Latin and Greek were fully developed and their evolution complete, they were especially well-suited to contribute to the elevation of the human spirit by affording us insight into the nature of language.”

Incidentally, Leonhardt makes a point that undermines the commonplace objection today to bringing Latin back into the schools (that this would merely mark the return of “privilege” and “tradition”): “This turn toward historical languages around 1800 should not be mistaken for traditionalism… It represented a modern, questioning type of history, well before historicism became the driving force in historical thought during the first third of the nineteenth century.”

The familiar argument of another kind of utility — more abstract benefits in language skills and in logical thinking — emerged in this context as well. The impetus of historicism and the enhanced status of natural science led to a new focus on syntax and codification of abstract grammatical models.”Our image of Latin as a logical language that sharpens thinking reflects precisely the analytical perspectives that went into writing these grammars.”

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

Another impact on music history: “This was also when systematic harmonics was developed in music, first in the form of ‘terraced harmony,’ later the ‘functional harmony’ of Hugo Riemann (which introduced the terms tonic, dominant, and subdominant). Significantly, Riemann’s most important publication was titled Musikalische Syntax (1877). Mozart and Schumann managed quite well without it.”

In his concluding chapter, Leonhardt suggests that Latin today has arrived at “a watershed moment” that “may be comparable to that reached around 1800.” And Latin is only one piece of a much vaster cultural outlook that is in serious decline owing to three factors, in Leonhardt’s analysis: the demise of historicism (“as things stand now, we are not far removed from the premodern era up to 1800, when no attention was paid to any of the historical languages”); the devaluing of the “literary and artistic canon of the educated middle classes” in general education; and the demotion in status of philology and historical linguistics.

Drawing an analogy to early music and the flourishing of the historically informed performance practice movement, Leonhardt ends with some speculations about a potentially positive future development in our relation to Latin: “The extreme theoretical approach to Latin and mathematics, which reached a high point in the nineteenth century, is slowly giving way to a rediscovery of Latin as a real language.”

Here’s a Latin poem written to commemorate the 4th of July, which Leonhardt cites as an example of the valued status of reading and writing Latin (including verse) in the early years of the American Republic. This is by one Samuel Wilson, from c. 1800 (modeled on Horace’s Carmen saeculare):

En superbis regibus et fugata
cara Libertas oriente ab ora
advenit exul, simul inferensque
Palladis artis.

Sacra nunc Phoebo melicisque Musis
templa fundantur: nucibus relictis
imbibunt haustus dociles alumni ex
fonte perenni.

Floreas longum, America o beata,
libera et felix vigeas in aevum
filii juncti et maeant Columbi

(c) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bach, books, languages, music history

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