A brief history of the alf—entirely in Latin, of course—is found on their website. It began rather promisingly in Rome in 1966 with an Omnium gentium ac nationum Conventum Latinis litteris linguaeque fovendis,a Conference of All Peoples and Nations for the Promotion of Latin Language and Literature. Several important people gave their support to the conference and were made members of the society honoris causa, including Giuseppe Saragat, the President of Italy, Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, both future prime ministers, and his Eminence Antonio Cardinal Bacci, the Latin secretary to the pope. More than five hundred people attended that conference, from forty-one nations, including Cuba, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Morocco, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. After this successful conference, the Academy was officially formed as a subdivision of the Italian government’s Istituto Nazionale di Studi Romani.
At the time of the alf’s founding, the use of Latin as a vehicle for scholarly work was uncommon but not implausible. The Roman Catholic Church had been conducting its theology, scripture, and canon law studies entirely in Latin for centuries, and had just concluded an ecumenical council (Vatican II) entirely in Latin. The Church had run the Italian school system for decades, and Italian scholars in particular had heard Latin their entire lives. An international body needed a common language, and it made sense that scholarship pertaining to Latin be written in Latin, especially by scholars in Morocco or Thailand. To conduct business in English or Russian—the dominant languages of the day—was tantamount to making a political statement the alf did not intend to make (the second alf conference, in 1970, was held on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Bucharest). But cultural conditions changed very quickly. During the 1970s, Latin was in retreat everywhere in the world. The year 1977 witnessed what might have been the alf’s most intriguing moment: a lavish conference staged by the Senegalese president (and passionate defender of Latin), Leopold Sedar Senghor, in Dakar. But the number of scholars who could create competent academic work in Latin was shrinking by the year. When Pietro Romanelli, the first alfpresident, died in 1981, his successor Luigi de Nardis thought speaking Latin was a dead-end. Decades of infighting and uncertainty and decay followed. After much handwringing, the use of Latin was preserved at alf events, but the Istituto Nazionale di Studi Romani cut the alf loose. Funding dried up. Members argued over alfstatutes such as conditions for membership and whether or not there could be a non-Italian in the role of president. A conference given in 1989 in East Berlin had almost no participants.
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Do they work, these string-quartet arrangements? Oh, yes. They make the preludes and fugues different (I think they are keyboard works, fundamentally). But Bach is still Bach. He is always Bach, no matter what you do to him. When the Swingle Singers sing him, he is Bach. When you bang him on a can, he remains Bach. He will always out, always.
I think The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of the most miraculous things ever to appear on earth—and that the hand that wrote them was scarcely human.