Spanish Latin: Gilding the Lily

Apr 24, 2014 | blog, Newberry Consort | 2 comments

One of the best tools in a singer’s arsenal is text.  Words convey meaning, of course, but how we sing them give us endless possibilities to make articulation, color, phrasing, and rhythm beyond the musical notation.  In the field of historical performance, we do our best to discover how our texts were pronounced in their own time, and then learn what that brings to the music.


Before there was a “standard” pronunciation of choral Latin based on the Italian model, most people pronounced it with the rules of their own language.  Lots of research has been done in the field of historical linguistics, and there are some terrific books to guide us.  But sometimes we are lucky enough to find what we need right there in the scores.  The Newberry Library’s Mexican Choirbooks, from which our next program is drawn, is a great example.  The scribes who copied the music into the manuscripts spelled Latin the way that they heard it, telling us exactly how to pronounce it.   Here’s one example:


from Ximeno’s “Magnificat” in the Newberry Choirbooks

In current church Latin, this is written “Dominus ex Sion”.  The contraction of the two words to the single “exion” (which appears in all parts of this piece) tells us that the “x” and “s” are pronounced together with no gap between the words.


Another example is the change of a letter to reflect regional pronunciation.

from Lienas' "Credidi" in the Mexican Choirbooks

from Lienas’ “Credidi” in the Newberry Choirbooks

This text is usually written “et nomen Domini invocabo”.  Because the letters “v” and “b” are pronounced alike in Spanish, the resolution of both consonants to “b”tells us how to say it. And moreover, it is clear that before “b”, an “n” becomes an “m”!  Try saying these:  in-bocabo; then im-bocabo.  The easiest way almost always becomes the accepted pronunciation!

It’s also common to see words with close cognates in the vernacular take on the more familiar sound.  One word we sing often is the word for “holy”, or “Sanctum”.  In Spanish, the word is “Santo”, and so we see this in the  Choirbooks:

from Ximeno's "Magnificat" in the Newberry Choirbooks

from Ximeno’s “Magnificat” in the Newberry Choirbooks

Not only do we leave out the “k” sound, but the “m” changes into an “n” before the word “nomen”.


In case you are curious about how this sounds, I’ll leave you with a sample of what I’ve recorded for the singers to study based on my research, guides in Singing Early Music (my favorite book on historical pronunciation), and the wonderful bread-crumb trail of spellings in the Choirbooks.  Here is the text of “Salva nos, Domine” using Spanish Latin:

By adding this final touch of historical spice to the gorgeous music we are singing, we hope to bring yet another dimension of its unique New World Hispanic flavor to our performance.

Related Articles