BMCR 2022.02.05

Latin and music in the early modern era: education, theory, composition, performance and reception

, Latin and music in the early modern era: education, theory, composition, performance and reception. Brill research perspectives. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. 102. ISBN 9789004463301. €70,00.


Scholars from disciplines as diverse as music history, music theory and composition, classical reception, Renaissance and early modern history, Latin philology and literature as well as Catholic and Protestant theology (especially liturgy) will find this little volume on Latin and Music in the Early Modern Era instructive and enriching. “Early modern era” is here to be understood as the time from the Renaissance down to the eighteenth century. For this period, Robert Forgács presents an interdisciplinary approach to the intersection between Latin and Music in the areas of education, theory, composition, performance, and reception. To cover so varied a range of topics in only 84 pages is no little task, but the reader is left with the impression that the author has achieved what he had set out to do.

The volume combines a historically ordered thematic account of the subject matter with a review of primary source editions and relevant scholarly literature (including his own, with no fewer than five entries in the bibliography) in a sort of meta-study. One of the merits of the book is the conciseness and clarity with which the first section introduces the topic and presents the status of scholarly research, already giving here a complete synthesis of what is to follow.

The exposition proper (section 2: “Background: Ancient Roman, Early Christian and Medieval Music”) commences by illustrating the role of music in the Roman-Latin world and justly calling for a greater appreciation of the classical Latin musical tradition; because of its lack of preserved pieces with notation, it has often been eclipsed by the focus on Greek music (7) and yet finds a specific continuation in Christianity. Apart from mentioning the role of music as part of the quadrivium (8), this section falls short, however, in failing to give at least a brief account of the Middle Ages as announced in the section heading, particularly in acknowledging the importance of the Carolingian Renaissance as a crucial bridge between antiquity and the Renaissance through founding cultural centers that promoted and advanced above all liturgical music.

In section 3 (“Music and Latin in Early Modern Education: The Development and Pervasive Influence of Musical Humanism”), the reader first receives an overview of the strong interdependence of education in music and in Latin at the various schools and universities during the Renaissance period. Forgács focuses on France and England; the limited space justifies selectivity, but including centers of musical tradition and activity in other parts of Europe (e.g., Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands) would have accounted for the relevance they are given in later sections.

Section 3 continues with a review of Latin-texted prefatory and dedicatory documents, which so far have been studied more from a musicological than from a philological perspective and could yet become a valuable resource for “a better understanding of the music’s context, facilitate the coordination of music and text, and help to prevent incorrect interpretations of certain passages in poetic or prosaic sources” (18, citing Verbeke 2008, 206). Forgács illustrates this point with examples and the information that can be gleaned from them. He then moves on to discuss (Latin) musicological treatises in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Here the author addresses a variety of aspects in these texts: their dependence on ancient music theory and Neoplatonic musical cosmology, humanistic pretensions in the form of stylistic imitation and citation of classical authors, the ways in which these authors promoted attention to a meaningful musical setting of text, often based on classical rhetorical principles, and finally the gradual transition from Latin to the vernacular. It is clearly shown how humanistic influence became increasingly prominent in these treatises. Technical musical writing in Latin “did not usually meet the high standards of literary style set by humanists,” while documents of dedication and prefaces to music publications in Latin “present a wide spectrum of Latinity, from admirable to merely pedestrian” (80). A small omission may be the lack of comment on the Latin quality of the treatises by René Descartes and Athanasius Kircher, since all other authors discussed received such an assessment. A clarification regarding the proper reception of ancient concepts may be made about Forgács’ claim that the concepts of music’s capability to please and arouse the passions in Descartes’ Compendium musicae “are derived from classical rhetoric” (29), since the emotional power of music was already a commonplace in ancient classical music theory on its own grounds.[1] Hence, “essentially German” in “Kircher’s description of the affective nature of music” (30) would rather be Kircher’s emphasis on this aspect in his time than the concept itself, as Forgács seems to suggest.

The remainder of the study, certainly its most colorful and delightful part, is dedicated to surveying and analyzing “case studies” of Latin texts set to music throughout this period, treating classical verse (section 4, covering above all Vergil, Horace, Martial, and Seneca), Neo-Latin drama” (section 5, mostly in Germany and Austria), and liturgical and extra-liturgical Latin texts (section 6, centered on the Mass and the Canonical Hours). The examples given illustrate to what degree and by which musical means the meaning of the text is reflected. “Musical means” includes the type of voice setting (solo or choral, homophonic or polyphonic, and in what registers), form (antiphonal, strophic, or continuous, etc.), rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic development, timbre (voice and instruments), and particular features such as symbolism, “word painting,” or the relationship between poetic meter and musical rhythm.

The reader will find in these sections gems such as a rare performance description of a work by Jacques Arcadelt from 1559, an example of Adriaen Willaert’s musical symbolism (converting text vowels into melody by using note names with the same vowels), sophisticated intertextuality in Orlando di Lasso’s Imitation Magnificats, or the involvement of the Mozart family in the Baroque school drama along with a stunning account of W. A. Mozart’s dramatic composition Apollo et Hyacinthus (K. 38), written when he was only eleven years old. The final part of this section reviews compositions based on sacred texts in Latin by George Frideric Handel, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

After a brief summary (section 7), the concluding section 8 calls for further research into Latin dedicatory and prefatory material accompanying musical works and into the composers’ involvement in selecting and altering the original texts, especially in the context of liturgical music. Detailed critical and aesthetical analyses are also noted as pending for numerous musical settings of classical Latin texts from the sixteenth century as well as for the Neo-Latin dramas. Appended are complete lists of the copiously referenced primary and secondary literature, plus two indices, one for primary sources (by literary authors and composers), and another for names and subjects (excluding authors of secondary literature).[2]

Much of Forgács’ study consists of presenting and contrasting existing scholarship, but at times he also corrects (e.g. 39, 44) or complements (e.g. 41, footnote 115). The text contains multiple original quotations from foreign languages with mostly adequate translations. The reviewer noticed one infelicitous incident: from the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, the definitions for metaphor and comparison are translated identically (“used for the sake of placing the subject before our eyes”), thus obscuring the difference between them which is contained in a Latin phrase omitted by Forgács from the second definition (70).[3]

The combined attention to Latin philology and music becomes particularly fruitful when an intrinsic relationship between both fields emerges. This happens, for instance, when the same pedagogical principle is recommended for learning Latin and music composition: to look for a model author or composer to emulate (27), or when Joachim Burmeister’s rhetorical analysis of a musical piece is produced in a language that itself is characterized by “a level of great rhetorical sophistication” (29).

Overall, the book is well researched, copy-edited, and at the high standard for which the Brill’s publications are known. Nevertheless, a few emendations may be suggested for a future edition. Forgács asserts about the ancient Greek chromatic and enharmonic genera (interval arrangements within a tetrachord as the basis for a scale) that they “must have been heard frequently in ancient Roman society” (54). This statement is at variance with other scholarship; we can read in M. L. West’s standard work on Ancient Greek Music that the enharmonic genus was already being phased out in Greece as early as the fourth century AD and that the preserved musical fragments “from the Roman period are almost wholly diatonic” (165, see also Calero 2017). Furthermore, the identification of some classical references seems a bit gratuitous, such as deriving the use of the term mediocritas in Gallus Dressler’s praefatiuncula necessarily from Horace’s Ode 2.10. An explanatory note or reference about the story of “Arion and the dolphin” (25) would help those not initiated in musical mythology, as would a brief explanation for readers unfamiliar with the figure of Isaac Beeckman (29). Finally, two instances of simple oversight: on his introduction, the musicologist Alfred Mann is confused with the prominent German novelist Thomas Mann (31), and there is an unwarranted French spelling “Orlande de Lassus” (27) instead of the elsewhere (and commonly) used “Orlando di Lasso.”

Such minutia notwithstanding, Forgács’ work constitutes a solid piece of scholarship that contributes a valuable introduction to a little-studied subject which deserves due attention in the disciplines listed at the outset.

Secondary Works Referenced

Calero, Luis. “The Disappearance of the Enharmonic Genos in Ancient Greece.” Musicology Papers 32, no. 2 (2017): 20–35. Cluj-Napoca: Academy of Music “Gherghe Dima.”

Verbeke, Demmy. “The Need for Latin Textual Scholarship in Renaissance Musicology.” Music & Letters 90, no. 2 (2008): 205-214.

West, Martin Litchfield. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford, U.K.; New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1992.


[1] See, for instance, Plato’s Republic, book 3; Aristotle’s Politics, book 8; and the very detailed description in Aristides Quintilianus’ De musica.

[2] The reliability of the second index is not one hundred percent; the reviewer has at least not been able to find “Peter Smart” on p. 17.

[3] The Caplan edition (1954) of the Rhetorica that Forgács uses provides a translation in which the differences are represented clearly: “metaphor is used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture [of the thing]” (343, for 4.34.45); “a comparison will be used for vividness, and be set forth in the form of a detailed parallel” (381, for 4.47-60). In addition, Forgács’ transcription contains a typographical error in the Latin by writing “ponendo” instead of “ponendi” for the second definition. The full and correct second definition reads in Latin: “Ante oculos ponendi negotii causa sumetur similitudo—dicetur per conlationem.”