Why Latin is so reassuring

Charles Cowling

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson
 
I’ve just spent a bit of time searching youtube for fine funeral hymns. I’ve sampled classics from The King of Love My Shepherd Is to Guide Me O My Great Redeemer. Some renditions were plonkety plonk solos, some belted out by enthusiastic congregations, some performed by the best Cathedral choirs. Whichever way, I have to conclude I’m not a great fan of many hymns. Their words are often too sentimental, and their tunes too basic, predictable, clumsy even.

Abide With Me, written by the Revd. Henry Lyte in 1847 while he was dying of tuberculosis, stands out as an exception. Its music, by William Henry Monk, combines with Lyte’s words to stir gentle melancholy.


Feeling like a bit of a killjoy by and large, though, I turned my search towards familiar Latin pieces. They instantly focussed the mind on a higher plane, stirring not just melancholy but contemplation of life beyond death. Music and words both have the power to move, and it’s usually words from our Mother tongue that have this ability. But if we already know by heart the words of Our Father or the Creed, their meaning is somehow enhanced when their Latin version is put to beautiful, solemn music.

See if you agree by listening to the Credo 

 
and Pater Noster here:

 

Then there’s Dies irae, a medieval hymn forming a prayer for salvation from Hell on Judgement Day:

 

And last but not least there’s the incomparable Ave Maria, which asks Our Lady, who experienced such sorrow and offers such comfort to the afflicted, to pray for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’:

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Vale
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Vale

Late addition this, but I just came across this from 1066 and all that. I am aligning myself with the Dullards, obviously: Wyclif and the Dullards During this reign the memorable preacher Wyclif collected together a curious set of men known as the Lollards or Dullards, because they insisted on walking about with their tongues hanging out and because they were so stupid that they could not do the Bible in Latin and demanded that everyone should be allowed to use an English translation. They were thus heretics and were accordingly unpopular with the top men in the Church who… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

There seems to be a consensus among both English and Americans that English sounds wonderful when spoken with an Irish accent!

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

I often wonder that myself Charles! Dread to think.

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Vale says: I never realised I was such a Protestant until I started reading your posts Richard.

I’ve never been in any doubt you come from good Protestant stock, and that great, great, great…Vale was a roundhead rather than a cavalier. Nothing wrong with that either! Pax!

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

I prefer religious music in a language that I don’t understand; perhaps that is because I can’t relate to religion. I appreciate the sound rather than the words…

Vale
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Vale

I never realised I was such a Protestant until I started reading your posts Richard. The words and music make a lovely noise – a sort of blank page for you to project all those yearnings – but there is no real meaning in them for us. Compare this: 1. ADESTE, fideles læti, triumphantes; Venite, venite in Bethlehem: Natum videte Regem Angelorum.     Venite, adoremus Dominum. 2. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Gestant puellæ viscera, Deum verum, genitum, non factum.     Venite, adoremus Dominum. 3. En grege relicto humiles ad cunas Vocati pastores approperant: Et nos ovanti gradu festinemus.    … Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

I’m not sure if any living languages have the same effect. Before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Latin was, far from being elitist, the universal language of the Church, meaning you would understand Mass in Latin whether you were a Pole visiting England, a Brit visiting Poland or a Peruvian visiting Timbuktu. This universality sets it apart from any vernacular tongue although national languages, of course, have their merits. Polish is, I believe, a notoriously difficult language which some say is not so easy on the ear. French is widely hailed as a beautiful-sounding language and, as an… Read more »

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

Wikipedia might be lying to me, could have Latin lyrics…can’t really tell what they are apart from the ‘Amens’.

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

Does polish have the same effect? Here is a little number by the clever Henryk Gorecki,

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Whatever it is, Jed, I’m glad it uplifts you too.

Jed
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Jed

I don’t think it’s the elitist Latin that does it. It’s plainsong, those chords could be applied to the instructions on a bleach bottle and still cleanse my soul. Or maybe it IS the elitist Latin, those other worldly words, above and beyond me, higher than my peasant native tongue, maybe that is what lifts me up?

Evelyn Temple
Guest

I am not terrible
You are not terrible
He is not terrible
We are not terrible
You are not terrible…

They are terrible

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

*I am not a terrible…miss-read that!

Phoebe Hoare
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Phoebe Hoare

You are not a terrible Catholic Richard! I am not a convert/convent girl, far from it I’m afraid! Boarding school was to blame.

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

Hi Phoebe

St Patrick’s Breastplate is indeed an uplifting hymn. I was perhaps too harsh on the vernacular above as there are several good English hymns. But I’m glad you agree Latin words (Ave Maria etc) have a special resonance. Were you a convert girl? Sorry to ask in public! You come across as such a nice, liberal, arty, thoughtful student, I don’t mean to out you as a terrible Catholic! 😉

Richard

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

I have to say I have never thought about it before Richard, but now that I have I fully agree. Being forced to sing hymns seven days a week at school didn’t help. I would never listen to a hymn in English by choice but more than happy to in Latin. The only hymn I enjoyed singing was St. Patrick’s Breastplate, as everyone belted it out and sounded very convincing!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxA2zOSAuxc&feature=related

I think that was the exception.