Anybody surprised by Vaguet’s pronunciation of the Ave Maria? It’s in the French-accented Latin he grew up with. (for IPA readers: fructus ventris tui = frɥktɥs vɑ̃tris tɥi.) Just a few years earlier, in 1903, Pope Pius X had issued a motu proprio widely understood to call for Roman pronunciation worldwide, at least in sacred music. His text does not quite say that, but the idea took hold over the next half-century, with the help of radio, movies, records, and television. Before that, there were different versions of Latin everywhere. For centuries it had been the language of law, science, and higher education in general, as well as that of the Catholic church and (sometimes) of diplomacy. Its sounds depended as much on local language as on anything trickling down from antiquity. In American courts and legislatures, “sine die” (literally “without day,” meaning indefinite postponement) is pronounced more or less as “sigh, knee, dye.”

It is a current habit in the Early Music world to attempt whatever the performers guess to be the Latin pronunciation the composer heard, so that “quia fecit mihi magna” might be kʷia fɛtʃit mihi maɲ:a in a Magnificat by Monteverdi but kvia fetsit miki magna in Bach’s. If the phonemes are the most important thing, this makes sense, but if the meaning of the words is the most important thing, an alternate approach would be to go with the way the performers pronounce them when they use Latin in their own lives. That obviously held more force when more people studied Latin in school and when the whole Catholic service was in Latin worldwide. It’s fascinating to listen to the broadcasts of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Toscanini in the 1930s in that connection: it seems not to have bothered the maestro that his nordic soloists used three very distinct pronunciations of “e” (e, ɛ, ə) while Italian-oriented ones hewed almost exclusively to the closed Italian “e,” even while repeating the same phrase after one another on the same page. To us it sounds like somebody needs to decide and coordinate. To them, it seems, your Latin was just part of who you are.  

In any case it took a long time for the motu proprio to filter down to the parishes. For the Latin prayers in Dialogues of the Carmelites in the 1957 premiere recording, the soloists mostly use Italianate pronunciation as the Pope had instructed - but if you listen carefully to the chorus of nuns you’ll hear that there was no general agreement whether “u” was to be pronounced u or ɥ, and French nasal vowels can be discerned here and there as well. If Early Music ever gets up to Poulenc, this is going to be a problem: we know what “the composer heard,” and he heard a mish-mash. Also - what about the Latin the actual Carmelites knew in 1794? You probably don’t want to be the pioneer who first restores what Gounod had in mind for his own “Ave Maria” -  but if you do, Vaguet’s your guide.  

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