Strophic song in ancient Greece

July 9th, 2010 § 0 comments

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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