ancient music, Greek chorus

As we move on in time, the archaeological/historical record gets noisier. It becomes increasingly crowded with evidence, however hard to decipher it may be. I haven’t even mentioned Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian music yet.

Greek tragedies are not plays in the modern sense: they are gesamtkunstwerken: total artworks of stylised speech, chanting, singing, dancing to be performed in a place of geographical, social and religious significance during the City Dionysia festival. To read the text of a tragedy is akin to reading the libretto of an opera: it omits a great amount of vital information.

Consequently, it is always fascinating to hear how artists, scholars, and musicians attempt to recreate the sound-world of tragic theatre. I was alerted to this work in 2006 by a newspaper article by Robert Thicknesse, accompanying a radio programme on the power of a chorus. Thicknesse recruited composer Roxana Panufnik to set the final chorus of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos (in Oliver Taplin’s translation) to music based on the research of Martin L. West. I missed the resulting programme (In Chorus, Radio 4, 11 July 2006), which now dwells in the “pre-I-Player” archive. This commission, however, was a new piece of work based on ancient techniques, but there are examples of attempts at interpreting the surviving notation from the tragedy of Orestes by Euripides.

The play dates from 408 BC, and a few lines from the first choral ode survive with accompanying musical notes, providing melody, but not rhythm. The earliest interpretation of which I am aware is from 1979, by Atrium Musicae de Madrid (0’19” – 3’02” on this video):

This has all the clanging and dissonance one associates with twentieth-century representations of ancient ritual. The singing is a solemn chant. To my layman’s ear, it’s an evocative meeting of plainsong and minimalism. There are numerous other recordings available, all largely agreeing with this template, although some are closer to modern Greek pronunciation and folk melodies.

Modern Greek pronunciation and folk melodies became a bone of contention for some commentators on the recent scholarly reappraisal of the ode from Oxford University. The critics believe that the British interpretation is compromised for ignoring living folk traditions which, it is claimed, have continuity with ancient traditions. I’m in no position to judge on that, but I will return to problem of Englishness when I come to the Seikilos Epitaph in a week or so.

The scholarship behind this new version is, by all accounts, rigorously investigated and comprehensively evidenced. The major deviation from previous versions is in the rhythm: it is fast and lively, not solemn and stately. The following video is the conclusion of a terrific, brief documentary on ancient Greek music by Armand D’Angour:

D’Angour’s interpretations are discussed further on Radio 3’s The Early Music Show, from 28 January 2018: The Music of Ancient Greece (go to 26’30” for the Orestes ode).

It sounds true to me: remembering that the chorus is not to be heard in isolation, but has been extracted from a longer dramatic work from the festival of Dionysus. It reminds me of the Choephoroi (Libation Bearers) of Aeschylus. I’ve written before that this play, with its long grave-side laments, can be very flat on the page and in performance. But the performance at the Globe in 2015 was the highlight of that version of the Oresteian trilogy. The musical and choreographic direction of the chorus rescued scenes that in other’s hands I had yawned through.

Here, in the Orestes of Euripides, the chorus sings of the ‘swift-running winged ones, goddesses of madness’ — the Furies of Clytemnestra — who torment her murderer: her son Orestes. It is easy to imagine this being sung at the Theatre of Dionysus on the Athenian Acropolis, contributing to the audience’s appreciation of Orestes’ tormented mental condition.

 


 

Greek Text (Madrid 1979 version, lines 339, 338, 340-44)

κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς:
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς
τινάξας δαίμων κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν
πόνων ὡς πόντου λάβροις ὀλεθρίοι-
σιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Greek Text (Oxford 2017 version, lines 317-28, 333-44)

δρομάδες ὦ πτεροφόροι
ποτνιάδες θεαί,
ἀβάκχευτον αἳ θίασον ἐλάχετ᾽ ἐν
δάκρυσι καὶ γόοις,
μελάγχρωτες εὐμενίδες, αἵτε τὸν
ταναὸν αἰθέρ᾽ ἀμπάλλεσθ᾽, αἵματος
τινύμεναι δίκαν, τινύμεναι φόνον,
καθικετεύομαι καθικετεύομαι,
τὸν Ἀγαμέμνονος γόνον ἐάσατ᾽ἐκ-
λαθέσθαι λύσσας μανιάδος φοιτα-
λέου. φεῦ μόχθων, οἵων, ὦ τάλας,
ὀρεχθεὶς ἔρρεις,

τίς ἔλεος, τίς ὅδ᾽ ἀγὼν
φόνιος ἔρχεται,
θοάζων σε τὸν μέλεον, ᾧ δάκρυα
δάκρυσι συμβάλλει
χορεύων τις ἐς δόμον ἀλαστόρων
ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς:
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς
τινάξας δαίμων κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν
πόνων ὡς πόντου λάβροις ὀλεθρίοι-
σιν ἐν κύμασιν.

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