Latin or French?

One of the first articles in this blog was entitled “Students of the past”: Here, I want to expand more on this topic with this new article.

P1120642A Latinist is nowadays quite a rare specimen, if not endangered, although the Carolina Rediviva seems to gather a large number of those who are still left in Sweden. Latin is still often associated with the notion of excellence, a recollection of Antiquity and highly related to what is considered to be classical culture. In the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert wrote in its Dictionary of Received Idea that Latin is “only useful for reading inscriptions on public fountains”, but some whispers says that there is a new trend about learning Latin. That is the reason why I’m now going to recommend a wonderful textbook to get you accustomed to this language.

A fantastic introduction to Latin, very distinct from the ordinary boring and somewhat depressing teaching method of many a schoolbook. One might retort that it’s old. Well, depends what you consider old, I mean, it is only from the late 15th century. And since we don’t really speak Latin anymore – although I have to confess that I do have some friends who used to have a answering machine for their phone in Latin, but it’s pretty uncommon I guess – the grammar has not changed since that time.

In the 15th century, to study Latin and to have a perfect command of it was a prerequisite for anyone pretending to be learned. It was a language of communication, many books were written in Latin and, of course, Latin idioms and phraseology were adopted by philosophers and theologians in their writings.

 Thanks to a note written in French at the beginning of the manuscript, we can partly recount its history. It came from the library of a Benedictine monastery in Selingsadt, Germany. Thereafter the manuscript “ was put with the other books in Hanau (another German town), and placed in the attic by the Dutch church to protect the library from the Swedish during the Thirty Year’s War.” A lovely habit of the Swedish army during this war was indeed to take from and pillage the contents of libraries around Europe. In 1774, the manuscript was given as a present in Hanau to a Swedish. It is now kept at the Manuscript department.

 Thanks to this textbook, it became almost a pleasure to learn the ablative and dative plural, the fourth declension… The illustrations of the text, hand drawings, are absolutely exquisite.

Thus, from the Medieval Age to the 18th century, Latin was the international language. It is then supplanted by national languages and especially ousted by French. However, Latin is still used but not exclusively any longer. For instance, here is an extract of a letter kept at the Manuscript department and written in 1781 by the king Gustav III to his ambassador in France, the count of Creutz: “Here is, my dear count, the edict of tolerance. (…) I send to you the Swedish copy; I’m sending one in Latin to Marmontel. If you would find it appropriate to translate it into French and to publish in the Gazette de France, you will please me.” Jean-François Marmontel is a philosophe, that’s probably why Gustav III sends to him the Latin version.

Gustav III is a monarch but, as a child, he also used to be a student. The Gustavian collection kept in our library is a real treasure to see right throughout the life of this king. And a man of such a position must have a good education. We sheltered two lovely notebooks, covered with blue silk that were the writing exercises of the little prince realized between 1754 and 1755. The future Gustav III is 8 years old. His handwriting is at first hesitant but by and by the royal student improves more and more. It is moving to read and sense his improvement. He is training to write properly “Konung” which means “King”.

However, if some pages are in Swedish, most of the writings are in French. At the age of just three Gustav already is preparing to have an audience with the French Ambassador and to open with a few French sentences known by heart. Gustav will soon be a master in French. He is probably at that time, among European monarchs, the one who best handles the language of Molière.

 Even the French philosopher Denis Diderot was impressed by his skills: “Our language must be commonplace in all these Northern regions, because his letters could have been written by the most courteous seigneur of our court that they would not be any better.”


Den svenske Mozart

« Kraus promet de devenir un des plus grands de notre monde musical. Je le préfère à Mozart à bien des égards ». Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

KrausIt’s amazing how many celebrities you can actually meet in a Cultural Heritage Group, – but I must confess, it takes a little imagination – and I’m not even speaking of Copernicus’ hair anymore. This morning I encountered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart looking for one of his notebooks containing a few ideas for The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito. It is the one that we preciously keep at the library and that you can discover in the exhibitions room. But I’m already sidetracking from my original idea, which wasn’t to write about Amadeus himself but rather to introduce you to another great composer commonly referred to as the “Swedish Mozart”. You may not have heard of him before if you are not an XVIII century enthusiast with an addiction to music from this period. Nobody is perfect. In reality, there are so many composers across the European nations who have been somewhat neglected and eclipsed by Salzburg’s prodigy. Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792), Mozart’s closest contemporary, is definitely one these composers. Although a German, he spent most of his career in Sweden. My purpose is certainly not to put the reader to sleep with an in-depth biography, but let’s just have a quick overview of his life.

Kraus began to compose around the age of eight (doesn’t everyone?) and later he became, at the request of his parents, a student of law. However, soon thereafter he focused his attention fully on music and literature. Kraus was a gripping, multifaceted character who also had many interests beyond music. In 1778, at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Stockholm. His first years in the Swedish Kingdom were nothing but a life of poverty before he eventually succeeded in gaining the interest from King Gustav III : “Yesterday I was engaged by him. Of course I was not granted any great title, but quite simple that of Kapellmeister. What is worth much more to me than 600 guilders is the favor I have been granted, which is that I am to undertake a journey to Germany, France and Italy at the King’s expense ».

Kraus’s Grand Tour, which lasted four years, between 1782 and 1786, is interesting in many respects. First and foremost, a large amount of his compositions were written during these travels. His official assignment was to learn as many things as possible about the latest trends in theatre and music. It should be known that he was a prolific correspondent with his friends and family, and his letters are a vivid and remarkable testimony of the cultural life in Europe in the late XVIII century. The Grand Tour also gave him the prized opportunity to meet renowned composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck and Joseph Haydn. And these two musicians seemed to be very impressed by Kraus’s talent. Thus, Gluck said once to the Italian composer Antonio Salieri that Kraus “has a great style”. As for Haydn, he was also very enthusiastic : « I have one of his symphonies, which I keep in remembrance of one of the greatest geniuses that I have met ». And later to add : “The symphony he wrote here in Vienna especially for me will be regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come; believe me, there are few people who can compose something like that ». As far as I’m concerned, I’ll take the Austrian composer’s word for it.

After Kraus’s return to Sweden, he was a part of the intellectual and artistic circles in Stockholm. He died only a few months after Gustav III, for whom he wrote Cantate Funèbre and the Symphonie Funèbre, which were both played at the king’s burial ceremony.


Thanks to the Swedish diplomat and music lover Samuel Silverstolpe (1769-1851), who was also the Kraus’s earliest biographer, the Manuscript and Music section housed a very important part of the composer’s works, most of which are sheet music. Silverstolpe was also the donor of Mozart’s manuscripts. Indeed he held a post in Vienna in the 1790’s. During his stay, Mozart’s widow, Constance, gave him some real treasures that included manuscripts from her genius husband.

If Kraus is already internationally esteemed, there is still a lot to do to bring him out of the shadows. So let’s start by listening to some of his creations. I have a selection of a few of his pieces here, and remember you can also buy recordings of music from the Kraus collection at the shop of Carolina Rediviva. I wish you a tuneful musical journey!


Note: The two pictures are from the Kraus collection that you can consult in the special reading room.

His Requiem, one of his first work written in 1775:

The superb symphony “VB 142” :

A cheerful and light piece :

One of his Opera, Aeneas in Carthago :

In January 1792, Kraus wrote an overture, a march and interludes for the staging of Voltaire’s Olympie

Kraus last work, the Symphonie Funèbre, the overwhelming drama of the murder of Gustav III :