Track of the Day: 'Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The loss of the cargo ship El Faro—the worst American maritime disaster in some time—reminded me of this work, Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. It’s hard to gloss Canticum because it’s such an unexpected work: occasional music, written about an event in the 1990s, with a text wholly in Latin. But here’s a try:

Canticum is written as a memorial to the victims of the MS Estonia.

In 1994, the Estonia was lost during a storm in the Baltic Sea: Of the 989 people aboard the ship at the time, 852 died. The loss of the Estonia is the deadliest peacetime European shipping disaster in history.

Mäntyjärvi’s piece followed three years later. It pulls its text from several sources.  As the piece opens, the choirs whispers the first lines of the Catholic Requiem Mass: “Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” The piece ends in a Latin version of Psalm 107, in a passage beginning: “They that go down to the sea in ships…”

The middle section, a tenor solo, straightforwardly describes the disaster. The source of its text is almost more surprising than the fact of the piece itself: The words are taken from Nuntii Latini, a news update delivered entirely in Latin every week on Finnish national radio. (The Times wrote about Nuntii Latini back in 2013.) The first line reads as:

Plus octingenti homines vitam amiserunt calamitate navali in Mari Baltico septentrionali facta.

Which translates to:

Over eight hundred people perished in a shipwreck in the northern Baltic Sea.

Though slightly error-ridden, the rest of the text is here.

Between the work’s patchwork text and arcane language, you might think Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae would come off as esoteric or gimmicky. Yet especially in its first half, Mäntyjärvi’s music stays supple, earnest, and moving. The wordless soprano solo at the beginning sounds more like a folk melody than a canticle. In this performance from the Illinois choir Cor Cantiamo, which has worked with Mäntyjärvi, the miserere lament swells, tide-like, but never loses its respect or warmth.

And Nuntii Latini, by the way, is still going strong. You can listen to its most recent episode, about “praesidentes Barack Obama et Vladimir Putin” giving “orationes” at “Nationes Unitae LXX annorum,” on its website.