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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.
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.
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’
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).
(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.