Strophic song in ancient Greece – Armand D’Angour replies

July 13th, 2010 § 0 comments

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.

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