Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Beati quorum scientia magnus est

An unusual request: a friend was looking for the Latin text (and translation) for a choral-orchestral work by Vagn Holmboe - Beatus Parvo, op. 118. Well, I like Latin, and I like liturgy, and I like Holmboe, and besides, how hard could it be? The movement titles in Holmboe's works are quotations from the psalms, so all I have to do is plug them into Google, figure out which psalms they are, and come up with a translation. Especially since the opening lines of the piece are lines familiar to every lover of the Anglican choral tradition: "Beati quorum":

(If you have no clue what I'm talking about, the King's College performance is here.)

Beati quorum via integra est; qui ambulant in lege Domini. (Ps. 119:1)
Blessed are they whose way is pure, who walk in the law of the Lord. (my translation)

So far, so good. All I need to do, then, is go to the Latin Vulgate Bible; remembering that the Catholic Church uses the numbering of the Septuagint, we turn to Psalm 118. Except that the Vulgate translation does not begin with "Beati quorum":

Beati immaculati in via; qui ambulat in lege Domini.
Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. (KJV)

The Stanford setting (and, by extension, the Holmboe), don't match the text of the Vulgate. This is strange, because unlike English Bible translations, the Vulgate of St. Jerome has a privileged status as the only Latin translation permitted in the Roman liturgy. How, then, did these two composers end up with a variant text? First, however, some potted liturgical history. (For what follows, I am indebted to the discussion here.)

The Psalter occupies a different position from the rest of the Latin Bible, because it formed the base of the daily Office. Thus, by the time the fourth century rolled around, a Latin version of the Psalms was already in standard use. Rather than preparing an entirely new version of the Psalter, therefore, St. Jerome used the Hebrew sources to make a revision of the existing Latin psalter. By the end of his lifetime, Jerome had made at least three versions of the Psalms - two revisions of the old psalter, and one original Latin translation directly from the Hebrew. His second revision - the so-called Gallican psalter - was the one that stuck.

All of this, basically, to say that the history of the Latin psalter is extremely complicated. There have been a number of changes to the Psalter since Jerome's time, including revisions to the entire Vulgate following the Council of Trent, an entirely new translation for the new Breviary in 1945, and the so-called "Neo-Vulgate" of 1969. Yet, as far as I can tell, none of them contain the reading "Beati quorum via" that we recognize from Stanford's setting. In fact, if you search Google for "beati quorum via integra est" you won't find a single site that contains the phrase as a part of Psalm 119; almost every reference is to the Stanford setting. So what gives?

I still don't know. I have no idea where Stanford got the version of Psalm 119 that he uses in the motet, but it certainly wasn't from any of the authorized Latin translations of the psalter. Perhaps he simply tweaked the text to make it easier to sing - it's certainly hard to imagine his flowing setting being fit to the Vulgate text. I haven't given up on finding a better answer, but I'll have to find someone who knows a lot more than I do (about Stanford and/or Biblical philology). In any case, as it stands this adds a fascinating mystery to a much-loved piece of music.

And the Holmboe? Well, turns out there's another psalm that begins "Beati quorum". (Idiot.)


may said...

Nice post.Hoping that the Latin translation made available together with the post.And the result will be genuine content, not the mere shadow of an original one.It is important that translation be written in a foreign language since it helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.

Anonymous said...

Change to "beati quorum scientia magna est." As "scientia" is feminine, the adjective "magna" must agree. Other than that point, thank you for this posting, which is quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

Many years after this original post, but the origin of the alternative text might be Johannes Cocceius, a Dutch theologian. See his translation of the psalm in his opera omnia: