Language, Music, and Audience: The Latin Motets performed at the Paris Concert Spirituel, 1725-1760

The Paris Concert Spirituel is best known as the most important forum for new instrumental music in the eighteenth century. Mozart, Telemann, Geminiani, and Boccherini all had major works premiered there.

What has been less explored are the vocal works sung in Latin which formed the bulk of the repertoire performed in first decades of the series.

Indeed, one of the early rules was that the concerts should not feature any vocal music sung in French.

In this paper, I explore the relationships between language(s), music, and audience.

In particular, I explore how wider cultural and religious practices—in this case, lay recitation of Latin liturgical forms—provided a context for Parisian audiences to relate to psalm settings sung in Latin.

I focus on the psalms of the Little Office of the BVM—particularly the Vespers psalms (Dixit Dominus; Laudate, Pueri; Laetatus sum in his; Nisi Dominus; and Lauda Jerusalem), arguing that these five psalms, more than any other, were chosen as the texts for sacred vocal compositions precisely because of their place in the Little Office.

Familiarity with the Latin texts on the part of the audience allowed the psalm settings to be successful in the concert milieu Composers could use the Latin texts in the knowledge that listeners would both know and understand them.

The former locale of the Concert Spirituel in 1864 (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale).

Image from Daniel Heartz, ‘The Concert Spirituel in the Tuileries Palace’, Early Music, 22.2 (1993), 247.