MUSIC IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME (III) – OUR TRADITIONS WILL EMPOWER THE COMMON EUROPEAN FUTURE


(BEING CONTINUED FROM 6/08/12)

Another important genre of literature in which music played a   significant part was what the Greeks called lyric poetry. Whatever nuances the words ‘lyric’ and ‘lyrical’ may have for us, for them it simply meant a  song to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre-type instrument. From an  early date this type of composition divided into two branches, known as  the monodic lyric and the choral lyric. Monodic means ‘sung solo’, and in this type of song we find the earliest attempts to express personal
emotion and to make personal comment on life, mankind and the  contemporary scene. The two most famous composers of such lyric were  Alkaios and Sappho, who both lived on the island of Lesbos in the early  sixth century BC. Alkaios wrote songs about contemporary politics and  the state of the world, and how a man might best react to it. Sappho, one  of the very few women whose poetry has been preserved (though only in  brief fragments) wrote highly evocative and atmospheric songs, some of  them telling of her passionate feelings towards women. For the Greeks, the proper medium for this type of subject was the song, sung solo by the  poet, who accompanied himself (or herself) on a lyre. There is a well-known  vase-painting, thought by some17 to be by the Brygos painter,dating from the early fifth century BC, which shows Sappho and Alkaios,both holding lyre-type instruments (Figure 1.8).
In addition to composing the appropriate music, Alkaios and Sappho  each invented a pattern of rhythms for their songs, in the form of a stanza  which came to be named after them. They did not, however, confine  themselves to ‘their own’ rhythms, but used a range of metres, with lines  of various lengths. Though not a single note of their music survives, we  may be fairly confident that the distinctions, of what the Greeks later  called ethos, between music for different moods and for different  sentiments began to be drawn from this time onwards; the slow, sad  music of Sappho lamenting her parting from a loved one would have had  a very different pattern of notes, and a different style of melody, from one  of Alkaios’ stirring calls to his fellow-citizens to put right their political  wrongs.

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The other branch of lyric poetry which grew up alongside the monodic  was the choral lyric. Indeed, some scholars have suggested18 that the two  forms are exemplified together in a single work, the ‘Maiden-song’  (Partheneion) of Alkman, a poet who worked in Sparta in the seventh  century BC, and that this type of composition was the common origin of  both. The conventional view for many years has been that the essential  differences lay in the mode of performance and in the subject matter. It  used to be accepted that the choral lyric was sung and danced by a  choros, a group (most commonly of men, but sometimes of women or
girls)19 numbering anything from twelve to fifty, accompanied by an  aulos-player or a kithara-player or both. The occasions on which they  performed were public, and so the themes and subjects of this type of  song were public. This has been called into question in recent times, but  most disagreements can be attributed to the obvious fact that there is not  always a clear-cut distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’.
We have already encountered the ode celebrating a victory at the great  games, composed by Pindar. Such songs were also composed for religious  festivals, and commonly incorporated the narration of a myth from the  great Greek repertoire of stories. To what extent the choros mimed or  acted out the story we do not know, but it seems likely that there was  some theatrical element in the performance. Apart from Pindar’s works,which date from the fifth century BC, the surviving remains of this type of
composition are miserably small, but from a comparison between them  and the fragments of solo lyric it is easy to see that the differences in tone  and content are very marked. Whereas Alkaios speaks personally to his  close friends, and directs his hatred against individuals, the choral lyric  speaks to the public at large, and in much more universal terms. It very often deals with religious themes: mankind’s dependence on the gods,and the need to observe the divine laws. It must be remembered that for
the Greeks this was public business, and the concern of the city, not a  matter for a man’s individual conscience.
Another early genre of poetry which may have had a musical element  is known as elegiac poetry. This is a verse form derived from the metre of  epic poetry (see p. 115) with modifications in alternate lines. For a long   time it was generally believed that poetry of this type was intended to be  sung to the accompaniment of an aulos, but doubt has been cast on this  theory. The problem arises from the fact that the main evidence is found  in the works of an elegiac poet called Theognis, but it is not clear
whether he is referring to a performance of his own work, or more  generally to the contemporary musical scene.20 There is also a further  source of confusion in the Greek word elegeios, which may simply refer   to the rhythmic pattern of the words, while the similar-sounding word  elegos means a lament or dirge. It is known that this kind of song (which  was also called a threnos in Greek) might be written in the elegiac metre21  and accompanied by an aulos, but there is plenty of surviving poetry in
the same metre which is by no means sad or funereal. In fact, the subject  matter tends to be rather similar to that of the monodic lyric: personal  reflections on life and love. Over a number of centuries the metre  gradually became accepted as the medium for erotic or even obscene  poetry—the ancient equivalent of the lewd limerick—of which there are  many examples in the Palatine Anthology, a collection of miscellaneous  poems in this metre by various authors, dating from the third century BC  to the fifth century AD.
But the literary form in which music played the most important part  was drama, both tragic and comic, and that strange form of drama which  has no modern descendant, the satyr-play. What is more, the Greek  practice contrasted strongly with that of almost all later cultures, in that  the playwright was expected to compose the music, train the singers and  direct the performance of his plays. The sneer aimed at Euripides (who  was a very popular composer, his tunes being widely known and much  admired) that one of his household slaves had collaborated in some of his  compositions,22 would be completely pointless unless it was the fixed rule  that the poet should write all of it.
Aristotle, in his Poetics, traced the beginnings of tragic drama from ‘the  leaders of the dithyramb’ meaning, presumably, that in a developed form  of the dithyramb there were solo singers who led the dance movements.23
The Greek word for an actor was hypokrites, which meant the ‘answerer’  or ‘respondent’. This has generally been taken to mean that in the very  earliest stages of drama there was one actor who played all the individual  parts, and engaged in dialogue with the choros. At some stage, he began  to speak most of his part instead of singing it. Then (we do not know  when) a second actor was brought in. Even then, there was comparatively   little dialogue, and a great deal of the story was not acted, but narrated in  song by the choros.
In the choral songs of Aeschylus, the earliest of the three great  tragedians, there is a considerable amount of narrative, usually relating to  the events which preceded the action of the play. The most striking  examples are the first three choral songs in the Agamemnon, the first of   which tells of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis and the second and third  of the elopement of Helen from Sparta and her arrival in Troy (which  preceded the Aulis episode). Each of these songs has a strong dramatic  element, and it is easy to imagine the men in the choros not only singing  the words, but also miming the action. Indeed, given the Greek view that
the dramatist’s medium was a blend of music, words and rhythmos (i.e.bodily movement), it is surely safe to assume that the dancing of the  choros was representational (or mimetic, to use Aristotle’s special term),miming the events of the story, and expressing the emotions of the  singers in what is now called body-language. There would be little place  for the purely ornamental and formal style of dancing familiar to us from  nineteenth-century ballet.
The conventional view of the early form of tragedy, which was held by  most scholars in the first half of the twentieth century, was suggested to  them by the very prominent part assigned to the choros in the Suppliant  Women of Aeschylus. For many years this was believed to be the oldest  surviving tragedy, dating from around 500 BC; but evidence came to light  in 1952 which shows that it was in fact written during the last twelve  years of Aeschylus’ life.24 But then again, the Agamemnon belongs to the
very end of his life, and he still uses some very old-fashioned narrative  techniques in that play, where it suits his purpose to do so.
There is also quite clear evidence in the surviving plays that the actors  in the earliest tragedies had a smaller part to play, and that for most of the  performance there was only one ‘on stage’ at any one time. This means  that, although four or five characters might appear at various times, they  could all be played by the same actor. We do not know precisely when a  second actor was added to the cast; but where there are two speaking  actors in conversation, the less important of the two is very commonly a
narrator or bringer of news rather than a character involved in the action.
A number of Aeschylus’ plays consist almost entirely of choral songs, or  dialogue between the choros and one actor, or narrative speeches by a  messenger. The introduction of a third actor, an innovation which Aristotle  attributed to Sophocles,25 made it possible for the playwright to present a  clash of personalities on the stage, such as the famous arguments between  Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play (Antigone 441–525) or between Jason and Medea in Euripides’ (Medea 446–626). The effect of these
developments was to curtail the musical element, by reducing the amount  of the performance time occupied by the choros songs, and by taking  away some of the functions earlier entrusted to the choros. In Sophocles  they no longer act as narrators, that function usually being transferred to  the prologue spoken by an actor. The result of this is not merely to  change the personnel, but also to transform the mode of narration. In  their songs, the choros did not tell the story in the leisurely, diffuse  manner of the epic poets, with plenty of detail and an ordered sequence.

Instead, they tended to use a very selective technique, picking out the  moments of climax in the story and presenting them graphically, dwelling  on the emotions of the people concerned, and leaving out the mundane  details. In fact, the poet often assumes that the listener is familiar with the  essentials, and can be relied upon to fill in quite large gaps in the  narrative. The same technique was employed by Pindar in those stanzas  of his victory odes in which he tells an illustrative or admonitory story.
There could hardly be a sharper contrast with the rather prosaic, matter of  fact way in which (to give one example among many) the god Apollo  speaks of the events leading up to the opening scene of Euripides’  Alcestis, spelling out the details and explaining the situation in a way  which might have tried the patience of the quicker minds in the audience.
However, the loss of the narrative function from the choros songs was  partly compensated for by a simplification of their role. In some of the  early plays there is an awkward inconsistency between some passages in  which the choros sing of events with the poet’s own understanding and  interpretation, and other passages in the same play where they appear to  be bewildered and mistaken. In the later dramatists, though they expound  a good deal of generalized morality, they do not stand apart from, nor
always fully understand, the action which they see on the stage.
Sophocles is particularly fond of exploiting the irony of a situation in  which the choros believe that events are moving to a happy conclusion  when the true parentage of Oedipus is about to be revealed, or when  Creon decides to rescue Antigone from the cave in which she is  imprisoned. Their elation and joy would be closely reflected in the  musical setting of their song and in their dance movements, and both  would contrast sharply with the dirge-like tones and movements of the  next song—in the Oedipus Tyrannos when they reflect on the awful truth  that has been told, and in the Antigone when Creon returns with the  body of his son.
So far we have mentioned only two ‘modes’ in Greek tragedy—the   dance-songs of the choros and the spoken words of the actors. There was  another, which might be described as intermediate between the two. It is  indicated by words written in a metre called ‘anapaest’, which consists of  short lines, usually twelve syllables, in the rhythm  (for more details see Chapter 4, pp. 117). Groups of these lines may be  organized in two different ways, one of which was apparently ‘recited’ and  the other sung. We have evidence that some passages in comedies written  in this metre were accompanied by an aulos, and on this basis it is  generally assumed that similar passages in tragedy were so performed. We  cannot be sure whether the words were sung, chanted or spoken, but there  is one argument from probability which may be useful. The power of the  speaking voice is very much less than that of the singing voice, and (as we  shall see in Chapter 2) the notes of the aulos were loud and penetrating. It  is likely that even a choros of twelve or fifteen men speaking would have  been drowned by the accompaniment, and not clearly audible.26 I am  therefore inclined to believe that the words were chanted, perhaps on one  note, or on a short, simple repeating pattern of notes.

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When are these anapaests used? In early tragedies, exemplified in  Aeschylus’ Persians and Suppliant Women, the opening words sung or  chanted by the choros as they make their entrance at the start of the play  are written in this metre, and presumably this was the old tradition.
However, Aeschylus makes the choros of women in his Seven against  Thebes enter in a panic, and use a variety of strange metres, so there was  apparently no fixed rule. The later tragedians tended to write a prologue  scene, spoken by an actor or actors, before the entrance of the choros.
When they do enter, they embark straight away on the first song, without  any preliminary anapaests. Later in the play, certain passages which cover  stage movements—entrances, exits and dramatic crises—may be written in  anapaests. A characteristic example is the moment when Agamemnon  enters in his chariot in triumph, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, lines 782–809.
Throughout the fifth century, the words sung or chanted by the choros as  they left the theatre at the end of the play were normally written in  anapaests. As the ancient theatre was open-air, and had no curtain, this  was the way of signalling to the audience that the play was over.
From early times the playwrights used at least one ‘combined mode’ — an  exchange between an actor on the stage and the choros, in which either or  both sang their words. In a number of plays this occurs after the main tragic  event, and consequently takes the form of a lament. Aristotle used the term  kommos (which means ‘lament’, being derived from the word for beating the  breast) for such songs; but the word is sometimes used in a more general  sense for any exchange between actor and choros which is partly or wholly  sung. The distinction between spoken and sung words is very clearly  indicated by the Greek text; spoken words are almost invariably in six-foot   iambic lines—the normal rhythm for all the dialogue—but the sung words  are written in a variety of complicated rhythms. Sung words are also, in many  such scenes, written in matching pairs of stanzas—that is, they are ‘strophic’, a  term discussed in Chapter 4 (p. 124).
This seems a convenient point at which to raise an interesting musical  question. All the actors in the ancient theatre were men, at least down to  the third century BC, and all the female roles created by the great  tragedians were intended to be played by male actors. The supposed sex  of the choros in roughly half of the surviving tragedies is female, although  the choros singers were all men. How, then, did they and the actors  manage the sung passages? It may be that we are inventing a problem  here which did not exist for the Greeks. We do not know how serious an  attempt was made to give the actors in female roles a feminine
appearance. No doubt the masks and wigs (which were worn by all  actors in all roles) would help, and to some extent the clothes. Comic  actors playing female roles certainly wore false breasts, though we cannot  be sure about the tragic actors. But it was the universal convention,familiar to the audience since time immemorial, that actors were in fact  men, and if Antigone or Clytemnestra were to sing in a tenor, or even a  baritone voice, I doubt very much if anyone noticed, much less worried  about it. Those of us who have watched performances of Greek tragedy  with a male actor playing a female role know that it seems a little strange  for a few lines at the start, but the oddity is soon forgotten. If we had  encountered tenor or baritone heroines in every play we had ever seen,surely there would be no problem at all. Conversely, the audiences of  later centuries did not trouble themselves over Gluck’s Orpheus being a  contralto, or Handel’s Julius Caesar being a castrato treble.
In some of the later plays of Euripides a device is used which was, in  its day, an even more exciting musical development. There are a number  of extended monologues spoken by actors in the earlier tragedies, usually  containing some narrative of past experiences (for example, Deianeira’s  speech in Sophocles’ Trachiniae, lines 531–587). But Euripides sometimes  cast them in the form of a monodia, or solo song—something like an  operatic aria. Without the music for any of these pieces, it is impossible to
say what they sounded like; but we have the words for a few (e.g. Kreousa’s song in Euripides’ Ion, lines 881–922) and a very amusing and  interesting parody of the style in the Frogs of Aristophanes (lines 1331–63). It seems that the playwright/composer exploited new musical  techniques, and was inclined to sound rather avant-garde, so lending  himself to the mockery of a traditionalist comic poet. One device in  particular is parodied—the division of a single syllable between several  notes, which the Greeks called melisma; by the conventions of writing  this is indicated by the repetition of the syllable (eieieieieilissete) in the
text. This is of course very familiar to us and, if we judge by the standards  of Handelian opera, seems a very modest adventure; but when it was  heard for the first time, it seems to have had a considerable impact. It is  also noticeable that these solo songs were not usually written in matching   pairs of stanzas, as the choros songs were. This reflects two features of the  performance; first, that the actor did not dance, or move about much  during the song (in one famous example, sung by Andromeda in  Euripides’ play of that name he could not, as he was supposed to be  chained to a rock!) and second, that the rhythmic pattern of the words
could be much more freely and loosely constructed.
One final comment on the monodiai which, though it comes from a  comic poet, has a nucleus of truth in it: in the Frogs of Aristophanes, Euripides claims that when he took over ‘The Lady Tragedy’ from  Aeschylus, she had an obesity problem. He put her on a slimming course, by which he means that he attenuated the high poetic style, and cut down  on the long, sonorous compound words of which Aeschylus was very fond. Having thus made her slimmer and healthier, he ‘fattened her up’
on monodiai.27
It is by no means easy to tell from an English prose translation how   much of the text of a Greek tragedy was spoken, and how much sung. In  order to give a general impression of the proportions, I have analysed the  Ion of Euripides, a fairly representative play of the later fifth century. The  analysis is crude, being based on a line-count, but is not, I believe,misleading. The whole play has 1,622 lines, and would take, at a guess,most of two hours to perform. About two-thirds of this time would be  taken up with spoken dialogue, the rest (something like 40 minutes)  being wholly or partly sung or chanted. The fully sung part, which  consists of (a) all the choros songs, (b) Kreousa’s monodia, and (c) the  opening song, shared between Ion and the choros, may have lasted about  24 minutes, and the passages in anapaests, together with the kommos bits  which were partly sung and partly spoken, would have taken about 10  minutes. For the mathematically-minded reader who may have spotted  that there are about six minutes unaccounted for, it should be said that  there are about 84 lines written in a metre called the trochaic—longer  lines which were probably spoken rapidly. They occur at dramatic  moments of action in the play, and since Aristotle describes the metre as
‘suitable for dancing’, those lines may well have been spoken or chanted  with a musical accompaniment.28
Ancient Greek comedy, which grew up with tragedy in the same  theatre and at the same festivals, had its own important musical element.
In fact, because the nature of early comedy allowed the actors to make  frequent references to themselves and their theatrical setting, we gain  much of our information on theatre music from this source. For instance,in a number of Aristophanes’ comedies there is a section known as the  parabasis, which occurs roughly halfway through the play. In this section  the choros ‘come forward’ and address the audience directly, often  making some claims on behalf of the poet. The opening lines of this
section were written in anapaests—the metre which we have already  met—and in one play, the Birds, the choros actually ask the aulos-player  to ‘lead us into the anapaests’ (lines 682–4). It appears from some  expressions in the text of this play that the player may have gone on to  the stage, and engaged in some by-play with the actors (lines 665–75),though it might be argued that a non-speaking extra played the part of a  ‘pretty little bird’ (Procne, the wife of Tereus the King of the birds) and  mimed the action while the real aulos-player played in his usual place.
We have no direct evidence of where this was, and the issue is confused   for the English reader by a change in the meaning of the Greek word  orchestra. This meant a ‘dancing-platform’, and referred to the circular  area in front of the stage where the choros performed. In Roman times, if  not earlier, when the choros ceased to have any importance, this area was  used for seating, and in modern proscenium theatres those seats came to  be called the ‘orchestra stalls’. The musicians sat at the front of these stalls
in the ‘orchestra pit’, and in the end the word orchestra was transferred to  them. It is generally believed (for lack of any evidence by which to  check) that in the ancient theatre the aulos-player and the kithara-player  (if there was one, which is disputed) stood at the back of the dancingplatform,perhaps one either side of the stage. This is consistent with a  very unusual feature in the text of Aristophanes’ Birds; there are virtually  no stage directions preserved in the texts of ancient drama, but at line 223 of the Birds there is a marginal note which says ‘someone plays the aulos  from behind the scene’ (in Greek, endothen, ‘from within’). This suggests  that the aulos-player was normally in view of the audience, and that here  we have a special effect. In the text of the songs sung by the choros of   birds there are quite a lot of bird-song noises (e.g. ‘tio-tio-tinx’ or  ‘kikkabau, kikkabau’), and we may be fairly sure that the aulos-player  contributed his share of bird-like trills and warbles.
In the majority of the surviving comedies the choros were dressed as  human groups—men from Acharnai, for example, or women at a festival;but in a few plays they appear in animal costume, as birds or frogs, and  in another play they are disguised as clouds. It is clear from vasepaintings  of a century before Aristophanes that dancing by an ‘animal  choros’ was a very ancient ritual, dating from a time long before the  emergence of comedy in the form in which we know it. There are  pictures of men dressed as cockerels, or riding on dolphins (perhaps real  ones, or men dressed as such) and a very striking picture of a choros of
men riding ‘piggy-back’ on others who have horses’ heads and tails. The  inscription nearby, which reads ‘EI-OKHI-OKHI’ would of course have  been intelligible to a Greek horse. On first sight, this would appear to be  an illustration of a performance of Aristophanes’ Knights, but it was  painted a century earlier than that play (Figure 1.9).

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(TO BE CONTINUED)

BY John G.Landels

NOTES AND SUGGESTED  READING

17 Act 1 scene 2, lines 96–157.
18 In Herodotus’ account of the emigration of the Etruscans from Asia Minor, he says that  they went ‘to the territory of the Ombrikoi’ who must surely be the Umbrians. The  Etruscans eventually occupied the corresponding area to the west of the Apennines.
19 It is highly probable that the actors in Atellan plays, like those in the  Commedia dell’Arte, had a one-page summary of the plot pinned to the  scenery, by which they reminded themselves of the next scene as they came  on stage. It is the origin of our word ‘scenario’.
20 Horace, in Epistles II, 1, 170 ff. compares him to a ‘Dossennus’ —perhaps a   hunchback villain—among his ‘greedy parasites’. Plautus’ middle name,Maccius, sounds suspiciously like Maccus, the buffoon character.
21 Pro Murena ch. 12 para. 26.
22 Naples, National Museum cat. 6687, Fleischhauer MGB Plate 52.
23 De Re Rustica, I, 2, para. 15–17.
24 For a concise and clear account of their views on science, and those of their  rivals the Epicureans, see G.E.R.Lloyd, Greek Science after Aristotle ch. 3(Chatto & Windus, London 1973).
25 Their opinions are preserved in Diogenes Laertius (Bk VII, 158) probably  referring to Zeno (333–261 BC) or Chrysippus (282–206 BC), and in more detail  in Plutarch’s Placita Philosophorum IV, 19, 4 (in Plutarch’s text 902B– 903A).
26 Barker II p. 99 n.3.
27 A detailed account of this system can be found in my article ‘Assisted  Resonance in Ancient Theatres’, in Greece and Rome XIV (1967):80–94.
28 See Elizabeth Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (Duckworth,London 1985), especially pp. 168–169. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, in his review   article, is equally dismissive. A.T.Hodge, in Roman Aqueducts and Water  Supply (Duckworth, London 1992) is even more derogatory, comparing  Vitruvius’ work to a ‘poor undergraduate essay’ (p. 15) and seeming to
castigate Frontinus for not having used decimals centuries before they were  invented (p. 296). This is totally unjustifiable. Unfortunately, the most easily  available Latin text of Vitruvius—in the Loeb Classical Library, edited by  F.Granger—is not always accurate or reliable.

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