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Background - Puer Natus in Bethlehem

Notes by Tom Parker

This piece was first performed at St. Dominic's Church in Washington, DC. Like many urban parishes, St. Dominic’s has a congregation which includes members of many ethnic groups. The church offers a Spanish language Mass, but we also have parishioners from Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian locations, many European countries, etc. The English speaking choir makes an effort to sing some lyrics in Spanish, which is difficult enough, but we are also aware that it is almost impossible for a Westerner to pronounce even a single phrase of Vietnamese accurately!

What about Latin? Latin, originally the language of the Ancient Romans, became a Lingua Franca after the Fall of Rome, enabling educated people of many nations to converse with each other in universities and other centers of learning and research. It also became the common language of public worship for the Roman Church. It is usually called a "dead" language -- meaning that, since it is not the primary spoken language of any living group of people, it has ceased to go through the process by which languages are constantly changing.  For a Lingua Franca, this is not a bad thing at all.

While the Roman Church now offers the liturgy in the vernacular, the use of Latin is still encouraged as a link to church tradition, and also for situations where worshippers who speak differing languages come together. In fact, the Community of Taizé in France, which is not a Roman Catholic community, reintroduced Latin as a worship language for this very reason. It is easy to pronounce and contains sounds that can be made by speakers of many languages.

(See http://www.taize.fr)

Here is a simple pronunciation guide:


For English speakers, Latin is not terribly hard to understand. So many of our words have Latin roots that, especially when a piece is sung many times, it is quite easy to get the sense of the Latin lyrics. For example – Puer, “Puerile” = boy. Natus, “Nativity” = born. Bethlehem, Alleluia – same meaning exactly!

And so, here it is: a Latin folk hymn for Christmas.

The full score version, which was written later, includes two English verses and refrain.  This version was written for Jackie Niedermaier and the youth choir of St. Mark's Church, Vienna, Virginia.



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Last modified: 12/20/09