Corneille the Not-Quite-Forgotten

July 19th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Until last year, I had never read much of Corneille. I did so, finally, so that I could review Richard Wilbur’s recent translation of Le Cid, which appeared last summer in the same volume with his translation of Corneille’s best known comedy, The Liar. Not wanting to find myself pontificating on a subject I knew little about, I thought it would be a good idea to read more than just the two plays in question.

So over the past year or so I’ve read a good deal of him, and the more I read the less able I feel to sum him up in any adequate way. He’s a much larger figure than I had imagined. Besides his four major tragedies, which were the model for Racine’s, and The Liar, which Molière acknowledged as an important influence on his own comedies, he wrote many other tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies, and collaborated on a tragédie-ballet, Psyché, with Molière, Quinault, and Lully.

One early work that stands out is L’Illusion comique, a wonderful, unclassifiable piece that has in recent years had more appeal to the English-speaking theatrical world than any of his other works. Tony Kushner adapted it for one of his early plays, and Wilbur published a fine translation of it, as The Theatre of Illusion, in 2007 – his first Corneille.

But of his tragedies, it is the four he wrote in his early thirties, Le Cid, Horace, Cinna, and Polyeucte, that mostly still get played in France, and of these, only the first has any currency at all in the English-speaking theatre.

That play certainly deserves its reputation. Still, it might have been better for Corneille’s if another one of the four, all just as extraordinary in their own very different ways, had been given the role—since only one seems to be available—of representing his tragic muse to a foreign posterity.

To generations that have endured it in mediocre translations, having read the solemn introductions that drone on about the quintessential Corneillean conflict of Love and Honor, few things could be more tiresome than this play. We are to understand, those introductions seem to tell us, that where in Racine we find an acute psychologist who understood all the unruliness of human passion, in Corneille we find the high-minded moralist, whose sympathies will always go to those who can stifle passion at the merest hint that Duty or Honor requires it.

Corneille certainly did admire self-abnegation. But to conclude that he had no understanding of or sympathy for passion would hardly be fair. The whole effect of Le Cid depends on it; Corneille explicitly says, in his examen to the play, that his hero and heroine both perform their duty (represented not as shining and pure but as inconceivably awful) without giving up any of their passion for each other. This is what makes it moving. At least when conveyed in Corneille’s own language.

Honor is hardly the simple value, certainly not in this play, that it’s often represented as being in Corneille’s works generally. There’s a reason, beyond the color it lends, that the play is set in Spain. Even at this time Spain was considered a throwback in its strict adherence to the gentleman’s code. Corneille clearly finds something to admire in it, but he also sees the disasters that, unrestrained, it can lead to. Chimène’s father, the Count, is passed over for a position of honor at court in favor of the father of Rodrigue, the much older Don Diègue. Both have led armies, and served the crown with distinction. But when the Count, after they quarrel, slaps Don Diègue, the older man is unable to defend himself, and calls on his son to avenge him. Before that happens, the king’s men urge the Count to apologize. He privately admits to being at fault, but his “honor” won’t permit a public apology. He is not a villain, but a man whose wounded pride leads him into a shocking disregard for the dignity of others.

What ensues—Rodrigue fights and kills the father of his beloved; she, though continuing to love him, calls for his head, which he, in despair, is ready to grant her—is what most remember about the play. It can all seem faintly ridiculous if one loses sight of the whole background that Corneille has so carefully drawn. That includes not only the character of the Count, but that of the king, storm-tossed by all these unruly hidalgos but determined to forge a kingdom out of them, the infanta, whose overcoming of her own passion for Rodrigue serves as both model and contrast to what Chimène must do, and the ongoing war with the Moors, which repeatedly cuts short and overwhelms the private concerns of the characters.

It’s been said before that Corneille is one of the great political playwrights. That’s certainly true, if you mean political in the sense that Shakespeare is political in his histories and his Roman plays, rather than in the current, limited sense of “speaking truth to power.” Both he and Shakespeare have an acute sense of how power operates when it involves the impurities of actual human souls, as opposed to the monsters and paragons that modern political theatre deals in. But what’s particularly striking about Corneille is his ability to imagine very distinct societies, with values different from his own and from each other, and the kind of “culture clash” that can arise between them, or within one society that finds itself struggling to become something different.

So, immediately after portraying the medieval warrior culture of Le Cid as it struggles to become a stable monarchy, he shows us, in Horace, representatives of two ancient societies, early Rome and Alba Longa, both martial and proud, but one with the added edge of ruthlessness and fanatic patriotism that will eventually make it prevail, devouring its most generous souls in the process. Then, in Cinna, that same Rome centuries later, passing from Republic to Empire, with a compelling portrait of the emperor Augustus, past master of that same ruthlessness and fanaticism, who finds a new power in his ability to forgo them, spare those who betrayed him, and make friends of his enemies. And finally (and most astounding, in my opinion), in Polyeucte he shows the Roman world as it moves from paganism to Christianity, and despite his own clearly positive view of that development, manages to convey how utterly strange and baffling the new religion, with its thirst for martyrdom and abandonment of all worldly prudence in human relations, must have seemed to the sophisticated pagans of old Rome.

If the descriptions make it sound faintly like ethnography or potted history, it is neither: it’s pure imagination, pure poetry. That is, if by poetry we mean a language absolutely adjusted to its ends. To English speakers, who have always thought anything called poetry has to have a bit of mystification in it, that sounds like rhetoric, not poetry. But the French classical tradition fused the two, and Corneille was the first to do it. Nowhere is there any intent to mystify; the power and sonority of the verse, and its uncanny ability to illumine a whole world, is mystery enough.

Which brings us back to the matter of translation. I don’t know if I’ll manage to write a formal review of Wilbur’s Le Cid. I’m not sure how much I can find to say about it that I didn’t say long ago in regard to his Racine translations, Andromache and Phaedra. Here he has taken the same approach that he did there: translate thought for thought, line for line when possible, couplet for couplet when not, following each innuendo, each shift in attention, each reiteration and afterthought, so that the character’s every mouvement d’âme will be revealed, if not on first reading, then as soon as you attempt to actually play the lines, or imagine how they might be played. And let the sonority take care of itself. In that regard, some loss is inevitable. Wilbur’s translated lines are never going to impress themselves on the mind the way Corneille’s do. But they are the only ones I have seen that faithfully follow their contours. And they are thoroughly speakable. If English-speaking acting companies want to make this play do anything resembling what it does in French, they would do well to use this translation.

They should also read Wilbur’s introduction, which is as pertinent and concise as its predecessors. He is particularly good on the uncertain resolution of the play: it seems doubtful that Chimène will ever, despite her love for Rodrigue, recover from the ordeal that an unforgiving code has imposed upon them both, or ever be happy even if, as the king wishes, she eventually does marry Rodrigue. It’s the kind of delicacy you find everywhere in Corneille, but it can easily get lost under all the talk of honor and glory.

As to Wilbur’s translation of The Liar, there need be no reservations: it has all the wit and fidelity of his Molière versions, and should prove just as playable. Regrettably, even those seem to be less popular than they used to be. That reflects less on their quality than it does on the declining taste of Off-Broadway and regional theatre, not to mention the West End, where real verse translations, as opposed to adaptations, have become virtually extinct.

There’s plenty more to say about Corneille. Of the 19 plays he wrote after Polyeucte, the majority were tragedies. A few have had a reputation not far short of the great four, but beginning in his later years, and for many years after his death, the consensus was that his work suffered a long decline in quality. The influence of Voltaire, who found great fault with all the later work, cemented this opinion, though there have always been dissenters. What’s not in dispute is that his work changed character; he didn’t simply repeat himself. In the later works honor and generosity, though still present, seem more and more beleaguered in the darker, more intractable worlds he increasingly imagines. The verse is no longer all clarity and light; shadows and enigmas begin to appear. The hero of his last play, Suréna, wins the enmity of his sovereign by doing him good, and leaving him no means of rewarding him. His reward finally comes in the long arc of the arrow, shot by an unknown hand, that ends his life.

Strophic song in ancient Greece – Armand D’Angour replies

July 13th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

In an email, which he kindly agreed to let me reproduce here, Armand D’Angour replies to some of the points I raised in the preceding post:

Dear Alan

Thank you – your summary is excellent, and your criticisms very acute.
Let me briefly comment on three main issues:

1. Longer time-scale for the evolution of melody not conforming to word pitch: I wholly agree with you on this, and would adduce the fact that there was a centuries-old tradition of melodic composition for instrumental solo. Those melodies which would have had little or nothing to do with word pitches (and might even have been set to sung words, or at least influenced settings of verse). However, the Athenaeus passage I cite at the end apparently picks out Euripides’ Medea (the date should say 431) as being unusual for having a wholly responsional melody i.e. a set melody that would have had to violate word-pitches in one or both responding strophes.

2. Of course Pindar and the tragedians would not have left it to the chorus to come up with the correct melody. The poets would have composed the melodies themselves; but there is a lot of evidence that the ‘older poets’ took pains to compose ‘correct’ or ‘fitting’ melodies. It’s hard to know what to make of ‘correctness’ (orthotes, to prepon) in this context other than meaning (more or less) conformity to word pitch, in the same way as correct rhythm is what conforms to ‘natural’ syllabic lengths.

3. Euripides’ violation of syllabic lengths is, I think, precisely what Aristophanes caricatures with ‘heieieeilissete’. As you say, he would have been bound to parody the other kind of violation too. But how would that be indicated in our texts? In Frogs there is a wonderful parody of Euripidean lyric – it is not only the absurd content but the melody that must have been discernibly Euripidean. Dudley Moore brilliantly parodied Britten’s melodic style with a setting of Little Miss Muffet ( but if we just had the text, we wouldn’t know how it sounded. I bet Aristophanes had just as much fun training his chorus to sing those ‘Euripidean’ lyrics.

The final point is very well taken: the original manuscripts had no accent marks, and when scribes starting using them, they would probably have placed the accents in their normal positions, concealing any wordplay that might have depended on accenting the wrong syllable. We could look for such wordplay in the parody Euripidean verses in The Frogs, but any time you go looking for it, wordplay is notoriously easy to find.

Strophic song in ancient Greece

July 9th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Some years back I published an article on ancient Greek music in the electronic book review (ebr) – one of my sporadic forays into classical scholarship, a field in which I have no professional credentials, but an abiding interest.

The article, in a not very scholarly way, posed several broad questions concerning what Greek music was really like, and its relation to poetry. It seemed to me that the answers scholars gave to such questions often suffered from a lack of imagination. Maybe it’s just that they’re trained to eliminate alternatives, so as to arrive at (hopefully) a single plausible one, while I seemed to have no trouble imagining plausible alternatives to whatever answer they gave. As a poet and composer, I had a practical interest in considering all the possibilities, and I thought that could lend a different perspective to the historical discussion.

The first question I considered was this: Did the melodies of ancient Greek music follow the accents of the text? We know that Greek had a pitch accent, which, unlike the stress accent in English, played no role in poetic meter. It would seem natural to assume that poet-singers composed their melodies in a way that reflected, or at least did not conflict with, the accentual rise and fall of pitch in the lyrics as they would have been spoken.

On the other hand, a lot of Greek poetry was strophic, and strophic poetry was generally sung. It would also seem natural to assume that the melody was the same in each verse of a song. But in that case, not all the accents could have been observed, because they often fell on different syllables in different verses.

I recently had a communication from Dr. Armand D’Angour, a classicist at Oxford. Our exchange led me to investigate his own theory on this particular question, which is outlined in his essay “The New Music – so what’s new?” in Rethinking Revolutions through Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 2006).

The “New Music” refers to a stylistic shift that seems to have taken place in the late fifth century BC. It is associated with figures like Timotheus and, in drama, Euripides. Among the features of the new style described (mostly disapprovingly) in the sources are: mixing of different modes within a single composition, setting syllables to more than one note, and a busy, showy virtuosity.

Euripides is pivotal to Dr. D’Angour’s account. It so happens that the only surviving fragments of notated dramatic music—and the oldest notated Greek music of any kind—are from his tragedies. They don’t amount to much, and it’s not even certain if they represent Euripides’ own music, but they do seem to support the idea that music in tragedy, which was mostly on strophic texts, did not observe the pitch accent with any consistency.

It’s usually been assumed that in this respect, at least, Euripides was merely continuing the practice of earlier tragedians. D’Angour, in contrast, thinks that this may have been a further innovation of the New Music. In Aeschylus, Sophocles, and other tragedians before Euripides, as well as in earlier lyric verse, there would have been, on his theory, a far better correspondence between melody and pitch accent, achieved by application, within an oral (non-notated) tradition, of well understood conventions about how to observe the accents in any traditional mode. The result would have been that strophes and antistrophes would not have had exactly the same melody, but because they had the same rhythm and were sung in the same mode, there would still have been a fair degree of musical identity between them.

I had considered something like this in my own article, though briefly and only as one possibility among many. D’Angour gives the idea context, and develops it into a definite historical scenario as only a real classicist, at home in the sources, could do (I hasten to add that his theory owes nothing to me: he had not read my article when he wrote his essay).

He connects the emancipation of melody from verbal accent with two other developments in fifth-century music: its growing professionalization, and the invention of musical notation. The first of these had mainly to do with the rise of instrumental virtuosity, which soon began to influence vocal music as well, while notation, he thinks, may have been invented as an aide-memoire for singers once they could no longer rely on the old conventions for applying melody to words, and were forced to learn melodies that ignored natural word accents.

It’s a persuasive theory, and things may well have happened in some such way, even if not on the exact timescale D’Angour proposes. I would tend to think that any evolution from an oral tradition of singing that observed word accents to fixed, written melodies that ignored them would have to have been more gradual. For one thing, ignoring of word accent was not one of the criticisms made of the New Music. If Euripides had been the first to ignore accents in his text-settings, Aristophanes, who had such fun with other aspects of Euripidean music, would surely have made some joke about it.

As part of a longer musical evolution, the earlier shift from solo to choral lyric, from Sappho and Alcaeus to Pindar and Simonides, would probably be significant as well. It wouldn’t be hard for a solo poet-singer to perform the kind of on-the-spot adjustment of melody to accent that D’Angour envisages, but once a chorus is in play, the problem of coordination arises. If the traditional rules did not give unequivocal solutions in every musical situation, the chorus would have to agree beforehand on how to handle it, or else reconcile their differing solutions on the fly. That’s not impossible, either (cf. American gospel choirs), but it would in any case have made for a whole different approach to music.

I can’t imagine Pindar as one who would allow his chorus to interpret his verses in any way they thought fit. There had to have been a great deal of premeditation and instruction on his part. He was probably the most sophisticated musician of his time.

The tragedians, who were of course also chorodidaskaloi— trainers of choruses—would have to deal with similar problems. Tragic choruses were composed of amateurs, and rehearsal time was limited. Under such conditions, the advantages of fixed melodies singable to different words might have been compelling enough to begin relaxing the requirement that they reflect natural word accents.

And it may well be that Euripides did carry this farther. But if it were not completely new, it is easy to see why his ignoring of accents may not have equaled, in the minds of traditionalists, his more novel and egregious sins against music.

In any case Dr. D’Angour’s ideas are very thought-provoking, and there are more of them in his well written and entertaining essay than just the one I have focused on here. There is for instance, a fascinating account of the tripous, a triple lyre invented by the fifth-century musician Pythagoras (not the famous one), which leads to some interesting reflections on the relative roles of theory and practice in musical innovation.

But strophic song and the different ways of handling it in music is a subject that particularly fascinates me; I’ll likely be returning to it here.

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