Latin Sense and Nonsense in "Alexander Nevsky"


I had an interesting thought about the way we think about meaning in Latin recently. Explaining it requires a fair amount of background, so I hope you’ll bear with me and find a modicum of charm in my logos.
The chorus I sing with is rehearsing Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, and it’s a joyous if demanding experience. Prokofiev closely based his cantata on the film score he wrote for Sergei Eisenstein’s first sound film by the same name, released late in 1938.
Briefly, the story’s core is an historical event of consequence: It depicts the attempted invasion of the Principality of Novgorod in NW Russia in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by Prince Alexander, known popularly as Alexander Nevsky (1220–1263). The climactic battle on the ice of lake Peipus marks a spot which separates not only Estonia from Russia today, but Catholic and Protestant Europe from Orthodox Europe.
Even if you’re not a history of film maven, this is a classic worth seeing. The score is one of the most effective ever written; Eisenstein’s visual realization, while fairy tale propaganda in very broad strokes, is propaganda with a human heart. Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935), in contrast, sweeps what is human away before the ecstatic hysteria of the depicted masses.
It’s very apparent that George Lucas really studied Eisenstein’s work. Look for the genesis of the Emperor Palpatine, Imperial Stormtroopers and Boba Fett in armor here.
Here’s the Latin connection in all of this. The film’s Teutonic Knights, Crusaders really, march along singing a hymn of sorts in Latin, which runs:
Peregrinus exspectavi
Pedes meos in cymbalis
over and over again. How would you translate this? I’ll discuss one answer at the end of the post.
What I find remarkable (and this is my real point) is the extent to which people who know Latin have been reluctant to see this as nonsense in terms of syntax, in part because the words and forms are correct and it is presented in a serious artistic context. I became aware of this fact when I posted the above quotation on a Facebook Latin teachers’ forum about 10 days ago. I received quite a range of thoughtful and creative replies, e.g.:
pedes meos is accusative absolute (medieval syntax);
cymbalis here means “stirrups” (for which DuCange gives stapes, stapedis with several variants), a meaning not attested elsewhere;
pedes meos is the subject of an understood infinitive in ellipsis, such as collocari or necti (or collocaturum iri or nexum iri, neither of which form is attested).
I think the authors of these translations have been enchanted, so to speak, by the fictitious medieval context for these Latin words in the movie. Prokofiev himself (b. 1891), whose father was an agronomist and whose mother, although musical, came from a family of serfs, was highly unlikely to have learned a speck of Latin at home. He was a prodigy and went to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory earlier than any of his classmates, so he lacked a humanistic education. His lyricist for the portions of the score in Russian was Vladimir Lugovskoy, a well-known Constructivist poet under a dark political cloud at the time. For him, advertising knowledge of Latin would have been a definite liability, as it might be seen as advertising reactionary sensibilities.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that these highly creative people would quote Latin, not write it. If they were to write it, it would be straightforward—for example, pedes mei, for example, would be rhythmically the same and provide no syntactical headache.
As it turned out, Prokofiev dropped a big hint as to his source in an odd place, which perhaps helps to explain why no one really thought about what he was saying for over 60 years. In a 1939 issue of Pioneer, a Communist magazine for young teens founded in the 1920’s, Prokofiev answered a question from a reader as to whether melody eventually would completely evaporate from music. In part Prokofiev wrote:
Many readers of Pioneer are likely to have seen the film Alexander Nevsky. Now I wrote the music to accompany this picture. Those who saw the film recall that the Teutonic Crusaders, as they make their attack, sing Catholic psalms. Since these events took place in the 13th century, at first I wanted to find out what the music was like that Catholics sang at this time. I found a book in the library of the Moscow Conservatory that was a collection of Catholic canticles of various centuries. Well? This music was so foreign to us, that there was no way to make it fit into the film. Of course these Crusaders, as they marched into battle sang it in a kind of frenzy; yet, it produces a cold and monotonous impression on the ear of today. Consequently I had to throw it out and compose for the Crusaders a sort of music which, to a contemporary audience, would best portray that historical moment.
I translated this myself because the online quotations of this passage misled me in the crucial matter of how P. described what the Northern Crusaders sing. Prokofiev wrote “Catholic psalms”. Indeed, the second word he used (песнопения), literally “song singings”, is “canticle” or “psalm”. Is our strange phrase from the Vulgate Psalms?
It turns out that it is, as was discovered by my source and guide in this matter, a Scottish research veterinarian and amateur soprano named Dr. Morag G. Kerr (more about her here). Psalm 38/39 ends:
13 exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam auribus percipe lacrimas meas ne sileas quoniam advena sum apud te et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei.
14 remitte mihi ut refrigerer priusquam abeam et amplius non ero
39/40 begins:
2 expectans expectavi Dominum et intendit mihi
3 et exaudivit preces meas et eduxit me de lacu miseriae et de luto fecis et statuit super petram pedes meos et direxit gressus meos.
And 150 has:
1 alleluia laudate Dominum in sanctis eius laudate eum in firmamento virtutis eius
2 laudate eum in virtutibus eius laudate eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis eius
3 laudate eum in sono tubae laudate eum in psalterio et cithara
4 laudate eum in tympano et choro laudate eum in cordis et organo
5 laudate eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus laudate eum in cymbalis iubilationis
6 omnis spiritus laudet Dominum
Dr. Kerr noticed that these psalms are those used by Igor Stavinsky in his Symphony of Psalms (1930), and wrote a detailed letter on this subject to the publication The Musical Times in 1994.
Stravinsky and Prokofiev were sometimes cordial to one another, but mostly at loggerheads. S. remained an emigre after the Revolution; but P., who emigrated (with official permission, no less) in May, 1918, resettled in Moscow in 1936 with his family, after four years of shuttling between Paris and Moscow. It seems right, therefore, to view P.’s lifting of disjointed phrases that almost, but not quite, make sense together as a clever slap in the face aimed at the older composer for many reasons.
But what strikes me as a Latin teacher is this: how delicate, even feeble, our sense of Sprachgefühl is for our beloved language. We labor mightily to find meaning in a phrase that most would instantly question or correct if handed in by a student. I think Prokofiev has a lesson to teach all of us: credit the author with meaning, however misguided the grammar of its expression. It shouldn’t take 60 years for us to figure out what someone (a student, for example) has to say in Latin.

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