We sing it over and over as the Teutonic Knights advance, engage in battle and then fall into the ice: Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis. The prevailing view judges this phrase to be a bit of grammatically incorrect nonsense. Some think that Eisenstein and Prokofiev tried to come up with a Latin phrase and this was the best they could do.
Dr. Moran Kerr, a soprano with the BBC Symphony Chorus has argued that Prokofiev was taking a jab at his rival Stravinsky, using the same words from the in the Latin Vulgate’s Book of Psalms that Stravinsky used in his work The Symphony of Psalms. The horrid knights who repeat these words become virtual ‘spokesmen’ for Stravinsky, by this snarky joke.
But Prokofiev “borrowed” these words for much more complex and serious purposes than to mock his rival.
None of the interpretations I have read take into account the economy of the phrase, a tight string of words in trochaic meter with two sets of near-rhymes; us/os and vi/lis, a subtle concatenation of sounds that combine with the dirge- like music to produce a hypnotic effect
Merely spoken, the line has an energetic, rocking rhythm; Prokofiev strips the line of this affect, with a two-fold result…the strong consonants, drawn out syllables and few pauses suggest the monotonous, driving force of the invaders, as well as the deadly and deadened voice of sleepwalkers.
Pedes meos in cymbalis.
Prokofiev arranges these words, borrowed or not, and sets them to music to create something new and evocative.
The text indeed does ignore grammar and parts of speech, stringing words together with no clear grammatical relationship, and surprising us with juxtapositions of what appear to be unrelated images, Part of me hears this strange text as language poetry, suggestive of something not reduceable to glib or definitive interpretation.
This enigmatic verse precisely underscores the unreachability of meaning, and the barriers to easy understanding that arise from language, culture and personal experience. If you like many listeners then and now, don’t know Latin, the phrase might as well be Greek. If you do know Latin, the phrase mocks you with its suggestion of meaning and its thwarting of expectations.
I am struck by how much of the cantata is given to the point of view of the Teutonic Knights. We follow the battlefield advance of the invading force, first sounding ominously on the approach; then like wind-up dolls, marching frenetically into battle, confident of their success as they punch out “Vincant arma”; and finally, their vain repetition of their battle chant as they slip under the ice.
The movie portrays the knights as anonymous war machines, with their Klan-like white robes and helmets resembling buckets with small slits for the eyes. To be sure, these visuals, plus the loud clash and boom of announcing their advance, dives home the fearful threat they pose to the Russian people.
We hear the relentless repetition of the liturgical chant as they approach from afar. In contrast with the Russians’ enthusiastic call to battle, they sound like lifeless automatons…but like robots, programmed so they can’t stop.
If, as modern language poets ask us to do, you avoid the temptation to reduce language to previously held assumptions and bias, if you are open to a new association of words and meanings, the “peregrinus” line becomes more interesting and revealing.
“Peregrinus” derives from the Latin for “foreigner” or “stranger,” with a secondary meaning of wanderer. It resonates with the medieval chivalric term “knight[-errant,” in which “errant” suggests wandering with a subtext of error. If the word carries the sense of danger from the outsider, it also carries undertones of pathos, of the soldier on a wrong tack and forced to march far from home into inhospitable lands.
Many Teutonic Knights, in fact, were most likely suffering from PTSD, having been sent on missions from one territory to another, suffering terrible defeats at the hands of Prussian tribes, Mongols and others. If they were not wanderers in search of adventure as in the romantic traditions of the chivalric knights, they were unsettled, living a somewhat rootless existence, sent hither and yon to battle by the grand master of their order. They were to some extent pitiable, forced or propagandized into repeated warfare, driven by the excuse of Christianizing pagans.
Much has been written about the Movement to the East, the Drang nach Osten, as Germans looked eastward in search of land to support an expanding population. The real agenda was to conquer new land for farming and settlement.
Before we get too righteous about the Teutonic Knights, consider this. Their mission was similar to that of the soldiers and homesteaders who pursued the goals of Manifest Destiny in America. There as here, peasants were offered land in the newly conquered territories; also, there as here, Western culture was regarded as a civilizing influence and provided a good excuse for shoving out the native population.
Many Knights longed to stay in their quiet cloisters or tend the sick; going to battle was required as a form of penance for committed sins. On the battlefield the Teutonic Knight was not allowed to deviate in any way from the battle instructions or show any individual will. An interesting account in The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders by Desmond Seward (Penguin Books, 1995) details much of this cruel and complex history.
“Expectavi” is translated as the first person simple past tense verb, “I expected.” I can hear this word as a nuanced play on perspective. The stranger/invader expects to win. He is also expected or waited for by the Russian.
The line, repeated after the battle, reflects back on the invaders, many of whom are now doomed to die on the unforgiving ice. They got what they expected for themselves, not what they expected for their intended targets. A slow, repeated “Expectavi” is the last we hear from them before they die.
For me, this last passage caps the anti-war message that is embedded in this otherwise militaristic cantata, a condemnation of wars of aggression. (I hear that message obliquely in the field of death passages, the battlefield strewn with the dead of both sides.) In the movie, we witness the dark aftermath of battle as the soldiers go under, themselves victims of their own war.
“Pedes meos,” roughly recognizable as “my feet” may be an oblique reference to the foot soldiers of war, the front line of the invading force, many conscripted into service and often the first to die. At the least, I believe it refers to the many peasants and other lesser folk who were cajoled or coerced to join the armies of the military religious orders like that of the Teutonic Knights.
You may recall that at the end of the film, Alexander Nevsky forgives these soldiers who were forced to fight before he asks the people to mete out punishment to the leaders.
For me, the rhythm of the phrase we sing suggests the slow, heavy tread of foot soldiers, who have laboriously marched across the cold and desolate wastes of Russia in this and other wars. Repeated over and over, I hear the collective footsteps of this deadly juggernaut as well as a future one to be “expected,” moving in on waiting Russians.
The repetition, as they sing from afar to the battlefield, also has the force of synesthesia; the extended marching chant evokes the great physical size of Russia, which takes enormous time to traverse, (and has always put wear and tear on invading armies).
“The phrase ‘in cymbalis” is usually used in context of praising the Lord (laudate in cymbalis), as appears in the biblical Book of Psalms. It has been the most puzzling term for those who have tried to translate the entire phrase into a coherent sentence. The closest attempt at a workable translation goes: “A stranger, I expected my feet to be shod in cymbals.”
The English word cymbal derives ultimately from the Greek word kymbos, for “vessel” or “bowl.” Around 1600 an Armenian blacksmith migrated from the Black Sea Coast to Constantinople where he was occupied as the chief cauldron maker for the Ottoman Palace. He came upon a method for manufacturing the modern Turkish cymbal, which was made for use by the military, particularly in the bands called “methers,” associated with the Turkish sultan’s personal military guards known as janissaries.
The powerful clash of the cymbals, along with other instruments, would inspire and encourage the janissaries going into battle, while confusing and frightening the enemy.
Ok, this is a stretch, but perhaps “in cymbalis” refers to the clash of battle and the invader’s attempt to intimidate the Russians with battle fanfare and paraphernalia. The cantata announces the first appearance of the invaders with the loud and ominous clash of cymbals, followed by two deep booming drum beats (that for me portend exploding artillery shells in later wars).
“Cymbalis,” with its exotic associations with a Turkish sultan, could also be a reference to longstanding invasions from the East.
As Prokofiev undoubtedly knew, cymbals migrated into the triumphal processions of early opera scores and by the 18th century into the military pageantry of England and Europe. So while it may sound at first like “orientalism,” “in cymbalis” may reflect the glorification of professional warfare and its appropriation by royal pageantry, with some ironic undertones.
So, if you can’t hear the “peregrinus” text as a coherent sentence, perhaps it can resonate with you differently. For me, it provokes mental associations that I cannot help but make. It’s odd to me, that while as a phrase it lacks cohesion, it works as a kind of glue throughout the cantata, binding various sections together, as it constructs the threat of war.
Peace is often short and sweet. The Russian’s celebration of victory (captured in the instrumental and choral sections near the end of the cantata) sounds giddy and carnival-like, to my ears almost surreal. This section is also short, inserted before another reminder that Russia can never let down its guard for long.
What is the message, if any, after the drawn-out liturgical chanting of the invading knights? Perhaps not just that the cloud of invasion will always be hanging over the Russians. The “peregrinus” chant is full of sadness, it is impossible I think not to hear it, sung by deadened psyches that somehow know they have lost something, although they can never articulate it.