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There is one very significant feature of all these choruses—they are led in their dances by an aulos-player, and this must surely have been true of a choros in fifth-century comedy.
The latter part of a typical Aristophanic play has a number of short (sometimes very short) scenes of a knockabout character, interspersed with short songs by the choros, most of them closely bound up with the plot of the play, though some contain satirical comment on contemporary affairs.
As a final comment on the importance of music in Aristophanic comedy, it should be said that a number of plays end with a musical
celebration, by contrast with the tragedies which end with the choros chanting the anapaests as they leave the scene (see above). The Acharnians ends with the triumphal song celebrating the hero’s victory in a drinking-contest, and the Birds with a marriage ceremony—a very blasphemous fantasy in which the disreputable old Athenian is married to Universal Sovereignty, formerly the partner of Zeus. At the end of the Wasps, the plot more or less disintegrates, and a troupe of three dancers are brought on to do a vulgar dance (the kordax, roughly the ancient equivalent of the can-can, but danced by men) and so round off the play with a sort of cabaret turn.
Up to now we have been considering only the fifth-century comedy as we know it from the works of Aristophanes. In the fourth century BC a number of developments took place, some of which are already foreshadowed in the last two of his surviving plays, the Women in Parliament and Wealth. These led to a different form of comedy, known as the ‘New Comedy’, in which the
musical element was much less important. As it was the forerunner of early Roman comedy, it will be examined in detail in Chapter 8.
Beside the tragedies and comedies, there was another type of play which was regularly performed at the Dionysia, the great drama festival.
This was known as satyr-drama, and was a most peculiar art-form. First of all, it should be stressed that it had nothing whatsoever to do with satire,in the ancient or modern sense of that word. The drama got its name from the fact that the men of the choros were always dressed in the same costume —that of satyrs. These were strange creatures of the Greek imagination, part human and part animal, usually represented with human body but with horses’ ears and tails, and a characteristic face marked by a
high bulging forehead and snub nose, in complete contrast to the familiar elegant ‘Greek profile’. There are abundant Greek vase-paintings of ‘real’ satyrs, in which they are characterised as drinkers, dancers and uninhibited lechers, a feature which is very explicitly shown by the Greek artists. There are other vase-paintings which show actors dressed as satyrs about to take part in a satyr-play. They wear masks with the appropriate features—snub nose, horses’ ears and hair which looks rather like a
mane, and a pair of shorts covered with animal hair, with a tail on the rump and a large, obtrusive artificial phallus on the front.
The most remarkable feature of this type of drama was that it was written by the tragic poets. Three such poets were chosen each year to have their works performed, and each had to contribute three tragedies, which were performed consecutively, followed by a satyr drama. Aeschylus tended to favour the trilogy: a sequence of three tragedies which formed a saga, dealing with the fortunes of a single family through two or three generations,followed by a satyr play which had some sort of connection with the story.
The later dramatists preferred as a rule to write three separate tragedies and a satyr play with unconnected stories. So the audience listened to a total of four plays by one author on each of the first three days of the festival. It is an interesting comment on the character of the Greeks that they liked to have the light relief at the end of the day, and not earlier.
The form of the satyr-drama was similar to that of tragedy, with prologue, entrance-song of the choros and so on, but the mood and tone were totally different from those of tragedy, despite the fact that the text was written and the music composed by tragic poets. The choros of satyrs were characterized as drunken cowards, with none of the virtues of the characters in tragedy, and with no capacity for endurance. Unlike the plots of comedy, which were usually invented by the poet, the plots for these plays were taken from mythological stories, as were those of the tragedies. Naturally, the stories chosen were of a light and comical kind,
to give the satyrs plenty of opportunity to show their unheroic characters.
In one play by Aeschylus, of which only fragments survive, they are required to go into training for the Isthmian Games, a prospect which appals them. In Euripides’ Cyclops (the only complete satyr play which has survived) they are asked to help Odysseus to deal with the monster,which they are most reluctant to do. In Sophocles’ Trackers (Ichneutae)
they are struck with terror on hearing for the first time the notes of a lyre,which has just been invented and constructed by the infant Hermes.
This brings us conveniently back to the musical element in the satyrdrama. In vase-paintings of scenes of Dionysiac worship, in which ‘real’ satyrs and maenads (ecstatic female devotees) dance around the god, music is often featured. Satyrs play the aulos, occasionally the kithara, and most often the lyre or its ‘big brother’, the barbitos. Maenads usually play the hand-drum (tympanon, see p. 81 below). It is not surprising, therefore, to find that in representations of satyr-drama the members of the choros are shown with various instruments, most commonly the lyre or a particular variant of it (see p. 67). But the most
valuable pictorial evidence comes from a vase of the very late fifth century BC known as the ‘Pronomos Vase’ (Figure 1.10).
The side of the vase shows on three levels a troupe of actors preparing for a satyr-play; Figure 1.10 shows four figures from the
lowest ‘level’. The one on the right of the picture is wearing his shorts but carrying his mask in one hand. The one on the left has put on his satyr mask and is practising the typical hopping dance of the satyr choros, which was called the Sikinnis. In the row above (not shown in Figure 1.10) are several actors dressed for the main roles, but carrying their masks. It is easy to recognize Dionysos, Ariadne and Herakles, and to their right a ‘senior satyr’ called Papasilenos, who is the leader of the choros. But most interesting of all are the two central figures in the lower row. One appears to be a ‘main part actor’, who is carrying a lyre,
and presumably played it during the drama. The other is an aulosplayer,dressed in very luxurious costume and seated on an elegant chair, who is named as Pronomos, a famous virtuoso player who came from Thebes. He was responsible for important developments in the design of the aulos (see below, p. 36). This seems to suggest that an outstanding soloist might be engaged to play for a theatre production,even a satyr-play. What is not so clear is whether the actor with the lyre actually played it, or whether he mimed the action while a kitharaplayer performed ‘off-stage’; it is doubtful whether the sounds of a lyre
would be loud enough to carry throughout the very large theatres,though their acoustics were excellent.
So, taking all the evidence together, it is clear that the theatrical experience of the Greeks in the Classical period involved a considerable element of music, singing and dancing. It is very difficult for the producer of a modern version, especially in translation, to replace this lost music.
All that survives of the music of the three great tragedians is a very small fragment of Euripides’ Orestes and an even smaller scrap of his Iphigeneia in Aulis, and of Aristophanes not a single note. Some attempts have been made to compose music which sounds vaguely like ancient Greek; but the only substantial remains we have are the Delphic Hymns (see Chapter 10), which are liturgical music, and can hardly give us any reliable clues to the nature of theatrical music three centuries earlier. The Theatre of
Dionysos in Athens is silent, and we shall never hear more than a few fleeting notes of the music which sounded there.
The instruments used by the Greeks and Romans may be conveniently divided into the same categories that are used for modern instruments; to avoid irritating argument over fine-drawn definitions, I shall use the terms woodwind, stringed, brass and percussion. In this chapter the instruments will be dealt with in the order of their importance or popularity, which means that they are not necessarily treated in the historical order of their first appearance.
In the woodwind category there was one instrument which spanned the whole history of Greek and Roman music, and which appears more commonly in illustrations than any other—a double, reed-blown pipe,called aulos in Greek and tibia in Latin.
For many years it has been the practice of Classical translators,including some very distinguished ones, to use the word ‘flute’ for this instrument.1 This is extremely misleading and inaccurate, in two respects.
First, the aulos did not look like a flute; it was a double pipe, the two pipes being held out in front of the player (Figure 2a.1a). There was an ancient instrument which really was a single pipe of the flute type, and was held transversely, as a modern flute is held. It was called the ‘transverse aulos’ (plagios aulos, or plagiaulos in Greek, obliqua tibia in Latin, Figure 2a.1b).
The plagiaulos was entirely confined to the pastoral environment, and it does not appear in Greek literature or art until the Hellenistic period (third century BC onwards). The translation ‘flute’ should, therefore, be restricted to that instrument alone, and not used for any other type of aulos; nor should it be used with reference to any earlier period. Second,
the ordinary aulos was, beyond reasonable doubt, a reed-blown instrument, and we can be quite sure that it did not sound anything like a flute. The two pipes spoke together, perhaps in unison, and ancient
representations which can reliably be called Greek, which are in vase paintings of the Geometric period from the early seventh century BC.
The two earliest mentions of the aulos in literature also date from that same period or a little earlier; they are in Homer’s Iliad.5 However, both these passages are slightly suspect, and it is very noticeable that there are many more references to stringed instruments in the Homeric poems. This is hardly surprising, since only stringed instruments were used by bards,
both in real life in Homer’s day and in the stories in which they portrayed their predecessors in the heroic age. The Greek myths relating to the invention or discovery of the aulos are discussed in Chapter 6: if they preserve a genuine folk-memory, which is possible but by no means certain, they suggest that the aulos was imported into Greece from Asia Minor. It may also be significant that, while the principal stringed instrument—the kithara—was associated with Apollo, who in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was the most Greek of all the gods, the aulos was closely connected with Dionysos, believed by the Greeks to have been an Asiatic deity whose cult was imported into Greece and later Hellenized.
Indeed, it has been suggested that the reason and occasion for the introduction of the aulos to the Greek mainland (along with the handdrum,tympanon) was the arrival of the Dionysiac cult and its ritual.
However this may be, the aulos established itself in Greece as a very popular instrument, the use of which was by no means confined to cult; it appears in almost every department of Greek life, from the most solemn religious occasion to the most dissolute orgy (Figure 2a.2).
(TO BE CONTINUED)
BY John G.Landels
NOTES AND SUGGESTED READING
Kathleen Schlesinger’s massive work, The Greek Aulos (Methuen, London 1939) is not recommended. It contains a vast amount of information (some of it now out of date) on woodwind instruments, but her study of the Greek aulos is vitiated by
Baines, Anthony, Woodwind Instruments and their History (W.W.Norton, New York 1957) is old-fashioned but very readable and informative.
1 They included Sir John Beazley. He described a vase-painting of an unclothed male aulos-player as ‘nude youth fluting’. I have used this memorable phrase as the caption for Figure 2c.2, where it is entirely accurate.
2 The practice seemed to be dying out in the 1980s, but it was saddening to find it back again in Looking at Greek Vases, ed. T.Rasmussen and N.J. Spivey,C.U.P., 1991; it makes a nonsense of Mary Beard’s interpretation of the symbol
on p. 29 of Looking at Greek Vases—the lady is not a crypto-shepherdess!
3 In the National Museum, Athens.
4 In the Heraklion Museum, cat. 396. Illustrated in Martin Robertson, Greek Painting (Macmillan, London 1978), pp. 26–30.
5 Bk 10, 13 and Bk 18, 495.
6 In Hero’s description of the organ (see Appendix 2, Figure Appendix 2.2) the socket into which the key-block slid was called glottokomeion.