Bach's Well Tempered Psalter

© 2004, 2011 by Ed Kotski, All Rights Reserved

How to Read Latin

Writing Latin is hard, but hardly anyone wants to write it. Reading Latin can also be hard, but depending on what you want to read, it can also be very easy. Classical Latin is hard and Biblical Latin is easy.

St. Jerome wrote or edited much of The Vulgate, and he was a genius. He was fluent in Classical Latin, although in all fairness, in his day, around the late 300's, Latin wasn't nearly as Classical as it is today. Jerome deliberately wrote in a simple, direct style, and he used a relatively small, simple vocabulary. Because he was so gifted, he could share his ideas in vivid and memorable phrases. When Jerome spoke, people listened.

See my article "How to Read Biblical Latin" in the Latin Section of this website for more information and for examples.

Bach, Beethoven, and Who?

The Great Composers lived in an age when Latin was still sung, taught, and spoken. Here's an example from Paul's Second Epistle to Timothy.

I've fought the good fight, I've finished the race, I've kept the faith.

This is such a good phrase, that it has become part of our language. But this is better:

Bonum certamen certavi, cursum consummavi, fidem servavi.

The "c" of certamen and certavi sound like "ch" in church, and the "c" of cur and con like "k"


Repeat it out loud a few times, but stretch the cursum out a little, like "c uuuuuu rrr sum". Make each of the three phrases fills two measures each, in 4/4, for a total of six measures. Add a little "ba boom ba boom ba" after certavi to fill up the second measure.

Bonum certamen certavi

cursum consummavi

fidem servavi

Starting to sound familiar? I'd bet the farm that it meant something special to Tchaikovsky, which would be good example of robbing Paul to pay Peter.

Paul had such a way with words that people all around the world still know him, even if not professionally. I worked for a few years with a Jewish emigree from Russia, who had some fascinating stories to tell. One day, when we had a minute to talk, he was struggling to find just the right way to phrase his point. He put his head in in hand and said "Oh, what was his name? You know, the man who invented Christianity." The answer seemed so obvious, that I was struck dumb. Then he remembered "Oh yes, Pavel."

The Perils of Online Research

One problem I've run into, is that I do most of my research while sitting at my kitchen table. This sometimes leads to information which you won't find in a good library.

Now the buck we pick was in her mouth

the tear was in her eyes

I said that I come from Dixieland

Susanah... don't break down and cry.

I downloaded that from on 11/24/02, but now in 2011 the link is gone. The part about coming from Dixieland seems to have established itself, though. I just Googled the line and found several references which seem to have taken it in good faith. It's worth a few clicks just to watch knowledge wash out to sea.

For the benefit of anyone not brought up in America, the lines are from Stephen Foster's classic, Oh! Susanna. The real words are "The buckwheat cake was in her mouth, the tear was in her eye; Says I, I'm coming from the South, Susanna, don't you cry". Even now, I wonder if Foster's song didn't start out with "a" cake and "a" tear. I'd like to know and maybe some day I will, but ars longa, vita brevis. On that note, I've actually seen a few books with untranslated quotes, but that was years ago when giants walked the earth.

Odds and Ends

Here are a few items which I think are interesting, even if they don't really belong here.

1. Euge - Another little gem from the Psalms. This sounds like, and actually means, "well done", or, as we say today, "A okay" (the earliest known form of "OK"), and you read it here first. It's from Psalms 34, 39 and 69. I'm guessing, but it probably got introduced into our language by a teacher with a sense of humor ("Euge, Mr. Jones, Euge"), at a time when Latin was still pronounced correctly.

2. By coincidence - World Trade Center and Well Tempered Clavier share the same initials. So do Bach and Job.

Bach must have thought long and hard about Job. Archibald MacLeish named his twentieth century Job "JB", and the irony is in Bach's initials, JB, or as he might have written it, JoB. Bach and Job each lost ten children, although Bach lost his wife while Mrs. Job apparently survived. Along with her fishwife's tongue, Mrs. J might have been sent as one of her husband's minor trials, to toughen him up for the big ones.

3. Another Coincidence - Thinking about how close I had come to being killed in the 9 - 11 attack, a phrase from Ecclesiastes popped into my mind. "I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." I had originally learned this years ago, not from the Bible, but from Strunk and White's Elements of Style parody by Orwell. When I looked it up, it turned out to be Ecc. 9-11.

4. And Finally - This article has somehow changed right under my nose from an article about Bach into an article about Latin with musical examples by Bach. I've seen this phenomenon before. I was surprised to watch Bach work his way, nose first, into Schweitzer's autobiography until half of Schweitzer's book was about Bach and only half was about the author. If you believe in revenge from beyond the grave, this might be payback time.

Notes and References (including New Material)

I read a very interesting book which offers excellent insights into the problems which musically inclined Catholics encounter as the Church struggles, although that might be too strong a word, with the musical aspects of its liturgy. It's called Why Catholics Can't Sing, and it has a subtitle which is certainly accurate, but which I won't repeat here. It's by Thomas Day, and is published by Crossroad.

I've added new material to what follows, supplementing the notes in my Goldberg and Requiem prefaces.

I'm putting the following online:

Bach's Mass in Goldberg, by Ed Kotski

Beethoven's Hidden Mass, by Ed Kotski

Bach's Requiem Mass, by Ed Kotski

Bach's Well Tempered Psalter, by Ed Kotski (You're reading the Preface to the Psalter now)

Each contains a bibliography which tends to share entries. Starting below, I'm eliminating duplicate entries unless I've made changes.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914 Edition (also available on the Web). This is a superb reference. We had a full set when I was a kid, but I never thought of reading it. Rosemary bought me the CD version for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I was surprised to see how well the articles were written. It doesn't say much about Bach, presumably because of his ill-advised fling with the Lutherans, but it treats Him, however briefly, with great respect, which, I noticed, is more than it did for Luther, whom the editors clearly disliked. Surprisingly, they portray Henry VIII almost wistfully, like a son who died too soon - before he had time to come to his senses.

Germany in Bach's day was a mish mosh of Catholic and Protestant states who were learning to live with each other. Bach was not anti-Catholic, and actually applied, and was rejected, for a Catholic position. One of his sons converted, but I don't know whether he was inspired by conviction or circumstance.

I ran across a couple of unexpected gems while reading about Germany, and I'll pass them along. First, if you're looking for a job with cachet, the position of Holy Roman Emperor is still vacant. You're not eligible unless you're already a full time King, but how much would it cost to send a resume? Second, until the end of the nineteenth century the French were official diplomatic representatives for the Vatican, and by extension, for Catholics who were traveling abroad. It's probably too late to take advantage of this, but if you get yourself into a jam and your own Embassy won't help, it might be worth giving someone a call and see what happens.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Life and Work by Martin Geck, Harcourt, 2006. A very informative book. I'm only a third of the way through it, and would like to have finished it before including it as a source, but my own work calls. A writer as good as Mr. Geck understands these things.

Johann Sebastian Bach by Philipp Spitta, English Translation by Bell and Fuller-Maitland, Dover’s re-publication of the original 1889 edition. Almost the first, and still the finest. If the Good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise, I'm going to write a little article about some of the goodies I found in Spitta.

Landowska on Music Collected, Edited, and Translated by Denise Restott, Assisted by Robert Hawkins, published by Stein and Day, New York, 1964. Contains Wanda Landowska's essays, insights, and speculations. She was right - don't double dot the subject of Fugue 1. She said so, but nobody listened.

The Liber Usualis, With Introduction and Rubrics in English, and with accent marks! Edited by the Benedictines of Solesmes, published by St. Bonaventure Publications, Great Falls, Montana, 1997. Originally published by Desclee and Co., Tournai, Belgium, 1953.

Biblia Sacra, Juxta Vulgatam Clementinam, Colunga et Turrado, Don Ramon de la Cruz, Madrid, 2002.

Michael Tweedale's Electronic Edition of the Vulgate is available on the Web (Google "biblia vulgata") or try When I first ran into him, Michael was a young scholar in England who had already accomplished great things.

Harvard Dictionary of Music, Second Edition, Willi Apel, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. in 1972. O Lord, but Apel did good work, and I try to look something up every day, just to stay healthy. When I wanted to check the spelling of Tchaikovsky, I had to look under Nutcracker because Apel doesn't list composers by name. With Mozart it's pronunciation. With Beethoven it's van or von. With Bach, well he's hard to play, but at least he's easy to spell.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Complete Preludes and Fugues for Organ, Dover’s 1985 reproduction of the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Toccatas, Fantasias, Passacaglia and Other Works for Organ, Dover’s 1987 reproduction from the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition.

Oeuvres Completes pour Orgue de J. S. Bach annotees et doigtees par Marcel Dupre, published by S. Bronemann, Paris, in 1941.

Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin, Leo F. Stelten, published by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., Peabody, Mass., in 1995. An excellent dictionary.

Reading Medieval Latin, Keith Sidwell, Cambridge University Press, 1956. When you get to the point where you can translate a Psalm, and you start to feel the thrill of accomplishment, take a quick look at Sidwell's book and see how the pros do it.

Latin Resources on the Web - The University of Notre Dame has a very helpful site, named "Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid". It contains several good links, one of which, "William Whitaker's Words", I found particularly useful.

My sister Kathleen Canning taught Latin for many years, and now shares some of her methods on the Latin page of JSBachFOA.Org including her system for color coding.

I had, until she died in 2009, an additional reference in my wife Rosemary, who had a keener eye for a misspelled word than anyone I've ever known. She pointed out that I had gotten JS Bach's name wrong (Johann has two, not one, n's) on the cover of my "Bach's Mass in Goldberg", but not, unfortunately, before it ended up in the Library of Congress. Not learning from my mistake, I've again made a few changes after she looked this manuscript over, and any strange looking words which remain are my doing, not hers.

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