Latin Lessons from Musorgsky and Britten

“The text” of Modest Musorgsky’s The Seminarist (1866), writes Stephen Walsh,

. . . is macaronic: the Latin nouns, in the form of a verse mnemonic, alternate with the novice’s deviant thoughts in Russian. And Musorgsky naturally makes the contrast musical as well: a rapid mechanical patter on one or two notes for the Latin, a much bolder, folk-song-like melody for the wandering thoughts, which are never allowed, however, to break the fixed tempo. It’s as if what the listener ‘sees,’ in that vivid, Musorgskian way, is the novice with his head bowed continuously over his grammar book, while the music takes us inside his head and reveals what he is actually thinking. [Musorgsky and His Circle, p. 157]

The full text may be found on page 8 here.

It’s through David Nice, from his terrific Russian Music course, that I became acquainted with The Seminarist, along with Musorgsky’s Darling Savishna, featured in an earlier post here.

One of the many things I enjoy about the course is the way David draws unexpected associations between composers . . . which is where Britten comes in. Here’s Milo’s Latin Lesson from The Turn of the Screw. It’s just a snippet, toward the beginning—not even a minute—if you blink you might miss it.

Here’s the applicable text:

Scene 6 – The Lesson

(The lights fade in on the schoolroom.
The Governess is hearing Miles his
Latin lesson. Flora is “helping”)

Many nouns it is we find
To the masculine are assigned:
Amnis, axis, caulis, collis,
Clunis, crinis, fascis, follis,
Fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis.
Panis, piscis, postis, mensis,
Torris, unguis and canalis,
Vectis, vermis, and natalis,
Sanguis, pulvis, cucumis,
Lapis, casses, manes, glis.
Many nouns it is we find
To the masculine are assigned:


The source for the image at the head of the post may be found here.

3 thoughts on “Latin Lessons from Musorgsky and Britten

  1. shoreacres

    I’ve never heard of The Seminarist — it’s absolutely hilarious. I suppose part of the reason it amused me is that I once was a seminarian (albeit minus the Latin memorization), but it also reminded me of my 8th and 9th grade Latin teacher, who found our lack of seriousness unnerving. If she thought she could have gotten away with excommunicating us from something — anything! — she would have done it. Now, of course, I’m grateful to her, since botanical names are easier than they would have been otherwise.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      This one was also new to me–very funny, isn’t it? He apparently wrote a few of these–he was quite a character, I think. And I love your associations/recollections. I never took Latin, and it sure would have been handy for botanical names!

      1. shoreacres

        It’s some sort of tribute to Phoebe Wilcox that I remember her name as well as her classes. She was under 5′ tall, probably was about 70, and no bigger than a bird. We thought she was 12′ tall and had eyes like bunsen burners.

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