During a choral rehearsal my freshman year in music school, the conductor informed us that auditions would be held later that week for solos in Faure’s Requiem. A young baritone announced, “Well, I guess I had better brush up on my French!” only to discover that the piece was actually composed in Latin. The next semester when auditions were being held for the Brahms Requiem, the same baritone (thinking he had learned from his previous mistake) proudly exclaimed, “Well, I guess I had better brush up on my…. Latin!“
What does this have to do with the debate over the reconstructed regional variations in the pronunciation of Latin that seems to be de rigeur among today’s performers of so-called early music? Probably nothing, except that it is about as silly. And that maybe sometimes we try too hard to get things “right.”
I don’t dispute the idea that Latin pronunciation was likely as varied in medieval France, Germany, and Italy as English in Sydney, Boston, and Tuscaloosa is today. The difference is that today we have an international standard for the performance ecclesiastical Latin. For me to ask my ensembles, made of up of native and non-native speakers of English, to imitate when performing Lassus the way a native German speaker might mispronounce ecclesiastical Latin has always seemed to me to be completely absurd.
Besides, in addition to directing the professional Medieval ensemble Euouae, I am also employed by the Church and hope to bring the treasury of chant and polyphony that for decades has been all but banished to the concert hall back into the liturgical context for which it was intended. That is true authenticity! So as unfashionable as it may be among the early music crowd, I use modern church Latin for my performances of sacred music, regardless of whether it is 10th or 15th century, or if it was penned by a English composer of German descent who was employed in an Italian church with a choir full of French singers.
I came to this decision when I was attending a concert of early polyphony performed by the Gregorian Ensemble at Notre Dame while I was in Paris with the Choirs of San Francisco’s Notre Dame des Victoires a few years back. I noticed that the group sometimes used French vowels on words like “Sanctus” (as in the French “salut”) and even nasals on words that ended in -em or -um.
After the concert, the organist from La Sainte Trinite (where we had performed earlier in our trip) offered to introduce me to the conductor. Here was my chance to ask the chant director at Notre Dame in Paris about period pronunciation of Latin! Perhaps I would finally put to rest what at the time had been a heated debate with one of my colleagues. So I went up to the maestro, told him how much I had enjoyed the performance, and asked (in my best French) why it was that some words were pronounced as if they were French. Was it for historical authenticity? issues of vocal technique? acoustical considerations? He smiled and said (in English), “Why? It is because my singers do not listen to me.”