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.

Ben Sonnenberg (1936-2010)

June 29th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

I never met him, but he was the first to publish any of my poems, and Grand Street, which he founded in 1981 and ran until 1990, was one of the great literary journals of recent times.

NY Times obituary here.

Pour en finir avec le Bourgeois

June 16th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Looking back at my earlier posts on the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production, they seem to be all about the technique of staging, without saying anything about interpretation, about how these technical matters might alter the way we perceive the play.

In comparison to works like Le Misanthrope or Tartuffe, the Bourgeois can seem a little one-dimensional and mean-spirited. The would-be gentleman’s pretensions are held up to ridicule at every juncture; he is easily duped, and in the end, thoroughly deluded. There are some good jokes, and classic scenes, like the one with the maître de philosophie, that blend fantasy and satire, but it can all leave one feeling a little weary. The whole turquerie business, reduced to stage directions and nonsense lyrics, just seems like a senseless piling-on.

That’s why the music and dance are so essential, and yet including them, even performing them to perfection, is not enough; it has to be done in the right spirit, and that spirit has to match the one that the play as a whole conveys.

From the DVD booklet and the documentary portion of the DVD, as well as from the performance itself, it’s clear that the creators of this production conceived that spirit to be one not just of mockery, but of generosity and empathy. We’re made to enter into M. Jourdain’s fantasies. Everything, music, dance, gesture, costumes, lighting, even the stylized pronunciation, serves to embody them, make them sensuous and irresistible.

As played by Olivier Martin Salvan, Jourdain is not grotesque; he’s youthful, eager, clumsy, naive, and given to fits of impatience. The fact that he’s drawn not just to material splendor but to “the finer things” (les belles choses) is what cements the union of the arts in the play and lifts it into another dimension. It becomes not just farce but a sort of grand allegory. The production commentary doesn’t shy from drawing the parallel between Jourdain as patron of the arts and the play’s own patron and principal audience: the king himself.

Whether or not Louis XIV could look into this parodic mirror with equanimity (and how could a Sun King do less?), the opposite happens here as well: things outwardly ridiculous take on a kind of wonder and poetry. The booklet points out the best example of this: the maître de philosophie (played brilliantly by Lazar himself) teaching M. Jourdain the vowels. Empty concepts are something Molière can never resist parodying, but here the philosopher’s demonstration is so funny and so lovely that we can only echo M. Jourdain: vive la science!

The generous spirit encompasses the other characters as well. Dorante’s unscrupulous manipulation of Jourdain, borrowing money from him and pretending to further his courtship of Dorimène while actually courting her himself, makes him the most dubious character in the play, but here we mostly just admire his smoothness and finesse as he deftly sidesteps each new complication that his own game lands him in. We can hardly grudge him getting the girl rather than Jourdain, who after all has a wife already.

Finesse, grace in every sense, is what the play celebrates. Those who have it can be forgiven a lot. And those who don’t, like M. Jourdain, are not to be condemned for aspiring to it.

Historical pronunciation, Shakespearean division

June 14th, 2010 § 9 comments § permalink

Here is the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, as read by David Crystal in his reconstruction of Elizabethan pronunciation:


The Globe Theatre’s production of the play in 2004 used this “original pronunciation” in three performances only; the following year the Globe mounted an entire production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. These were the first such attempts since the early fifties. They seem to have been fairly well received, but I see no signs that OP is about to become common practice in the performance of Shakespeare.

It does have a nice sound, at least in Crystal’s rendition, and is quite comprehensible after a little adjustment. Easier for an American to understand than a good many modern-day British regional accents. As Crystal notes, it has hints of many modern accents in it, from Irish to West Country to American to New Zealand, without sounding like any one in particular. That’s appealing: it reaffirms our sense that Shakespeare’s language is the common heritage of English speakers everywhere. That would be one clear advantage it would have over RP as a standard for Shakespeare.

On the other hand, the difficulty in “placing” the accent creates other problems. What do you do with country or lower-class speech in the plays? RP versus West Country or Cockney may not be the best solution (especially for non-British productions), but OP seems to offer no solution at all: the accents are either going to sound all the same or the differences will have no meaning that we can identify.

One possibility would be to subtly shade some of the sounds towards RP or some other recognizably “prestigious” accent for the noble characters, leaving the lower class characters to speak a purer OP. There would of course be no historical warrant for this at all, but at least it would make some sense to modern ears, since many of the sounds in OP are distinctly non-posh.

Making puns like Falstaff’s “reason-raisin” clearer is also an advantage to using OP. Restoring perfect rhyme where it has become approximate in modern pronunciation is too, though perhaps not as much as Crystal believes (and much less relevant to the plays than to the sonnets). We can’t really know if Shakespeare always rhymed perfectly. Crystal assumes that he did, and rhyme is indeed a large part of the basis for the reconstruction. It is conventionally held that the first deliberate use of approximate rhyme in English verse was by Henry Vaughan, but who knows? Even if that’s so, half-rhyme has been accepted in English rhymed verse at least since Yeats. To say categorically that rhymes like love-remove “don’t work” in modern pronunciation is a bit extreme.

Crystal’s claim that Shakespeare in OP is much quicker than in modern pronunciation is interesting. It seems to rest on the frequent contractions and elisions in Elizabethan speech (many more than are reflected in the texts, apparently), as well as many vowel sounds being shorter than in modern English (such as the common “me” for “my”). Still it seems a bit subjective. Rapidity or slowness of speech is surely not a purely phonetic matter; it involves prosody and rhythm, which may be harder to reconstruct.

We also couldn’t object to a reconstruction that makes Shakespeare’s verse scan better, but this advantage carries the same caveats as the case for perfect rhyme. Indeed, even if you think Shakepeare’s rhymes were all perfect, you might well doubt that he always preferred his verse to be metrically regular.

In all, the case for OP in Shakespeare seems a good one, but hardly open-and-shut. Using it seems to have been merely one of a hodge-podge of ideas that went into the Globe’s Troilus and Cressida production (which was in modern dress). To make OP really convincing, some fresh overall philosophy of performance that fits with it would be needed. The Bourgeois Gentilhomme production had that in abundance..

David Markson (1927-2010)

June 13th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

David Markson

A wonderful, unusual writer, whom I knew slightly. NY Times obituary here. Here he is reading at the 92nd St. Y. in 2007.

Markson’s books at Amazon..

Le Bourgeois, cont’d: Lully’s theatricality

June 11th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

The standard published text of the play opens with the following stage direction (my translation):

The overture is played by a large ensemble of instruments; at center stage, a pupil of the Music Master is seen, composing at a table an air that the Bourgeois has commissioned for a serenade.

What we see in the Lazar/Dumestre production, after the overture, is a white-faced figure wielding a quill over a portable writing desk strapped in front of him, singing, humming, and writing to the accompaniment of a theorbo in the pit. The singer who will sing the song later in the scene enters, listens, approaches, and flirts with him as he finishes the song. It’s an enchanting opening, and I particularly admired the way the Lully air had been adapted to give an impression of being composed on the spot. Well, as it turns out, that was Lully’s doing. Here’s how it looks in the facsimile 1690 Philidor score:

The portable desk, the flirting, and so on, are embellishments, apparently, but they seem to flow as seamlessly from the score as the theorbist’s realization of the unfigured bass.

It takes nothing away from Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique to observe that the understanding of Lully as a theatrical composer has evolved tremendously in recent years; without William Christie, Jordi Savall, Marc Minkowski and others working in French baroque opera, not to mention movies like Tous les matins du monde and Le roi danse, a production like this would hardly have been conceivable. I first heard Lully’s music for the Bourgeois in the early eighties, and though it was attractive enough, it had little of the rhythmic verve and spontaneity that later groups—and none more than Dumestre’s—have learned to give it. The dances were stately, “comic” numbers sounded unfunny as only opera singers can make them, and there was nary a line of spoken dialogue in the whole recording. It was hard to imagine what it all had to do with Molière.*

And that’s pretty much how it was regarded for several centuries, despite periodic attempts at revival. From now on, anyone attempting a “straight” production of this play is going to have to anticipate being asked “but where’s the music?”

*addendum: This was almost certainly the 1973 recording with Gustav Leonhardt directing La Petite Bande, an ensemble formed for the express purpose of recording this music. Listening to it again (or excerpts from the CD, which I assume was just a re-issue of the LP), I have to say it holds up pretty well. But this opening number, not at all. It’s so obviously not a real staging, but a half-hearted “concert” impression of one, that it has no impact either dramatically or musically. No wonder I forgot it was even there. Still, Leonhardt and La Petite Bande must be given credit for beginning the modern revival of this score.

Frontal Staging

May 26th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

That’s the best equivalent I can find for la frontalité, a term used by Benjamin Lazar, Vincent Dumestre, and others involved in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production to describe one aspect, and not the least interesting one, of their reconstruction of Molière’s staging. It’s one of those terms that sounds straightforwardly descriptive in French, but impossibly abstract and academic (or else vaguely lascivious) in English.

In the early years of the last century, the view was nearly universal among “advanced” theatre practitioners that the proscenium had to be abandoned in favor of a thrust, half-round, full-round, or other more three-dimensional type of stage. Frontal staging reverses all that, but it goes much farther. It aims to restore, not the 19th century proscenium, but a more drastically flattened stage picture in which the actors are nearly always facing the audience, even when they are addressing other characters on stage, and where, because the playing area lacks depth and because candle footlights are the only lighting,* they are kept as far forward as possible.

No doubt a lot could be, and has been said about frontality in terms of cultural semiotics or what have you. The term originated in art history, apparently, to characterize ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art in which the figures depicted always face the viewer, in whole or in part. The head, for instance, might be in profile, while the torso faces full on. According to one scholar, frontality is especially characteristic of courtly and ceremonious societies. That would certainly fit with its appearance in the France of Louis XIV. But what interests me, and appears to interest the creators of the BG production about it is not its origin but its theatrical possibilities. It’s one of those cases where severely constraining one’s options can free the imagination.

Look at that opening scene with M. Jourdain again, where he is having his robe put on, then taken off, then put on again. He stands center-stage, facing the audience, arms held out like a statue, and he and his enormous robe, flanked by the two servants holding it for him, seem to take up the entire stage. That’s all you need to bring out the comic essence of the scene. How much irrelevant business has probably been expended on it in the past!

A somewhat special aspect of the frontal approach is how it interacts with candle lighting and heavy makeup. In the absence of lighting that can track them, as Lazar explains, the actors have to become aware of and responsible for lighting effects themselves. Simply moving closer to the lights or away from them can change facial appearance dramatically, quite apart from the quality of candlelight itself, which is a subject of its own.

Finally, what’s nice about frontal staging is that it looks good. Or it can. It encourages an awareness of the total stage tableau at every moment, and exploits two-dimensionality in the same way that painting does. That’s also no doubt part of the reason the video, which I’ve still only seen parts of, looks so good. But that’s its own subject too. I’ll have more to say on that soon (I’ve ordered the DVD, and should have it in a few days).

*addendum: not quite accurate; there are also candles in chandeliers, which can be raised and lowered.

Historical pronunciations

May 20th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

Eugène Green

Those familiar with my Greek recitation pages will know that historical pronunciation of languages is something I’ve devoted some time to. One of the many fascinating things about the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production was that it gave the chance to hear Molière’s lines in something like their 17th-century pronunciation. I would never have thought that the French, of all people, would get ahead of us in this. I remember years ago, when I briefly lived in France, the hilarity or disgust that a Québec accent could provoke – as it happened, I had also briefly lived in Canada. And yet here, in this production, you could hear some of that same twang (of course Quebeckers have always insisted that what they speak is pure 17th-century French).

The case for historical pronunciation in Shakespeare has often been made; indeed, his language, though not that much older, feels much farther from us than Molière’s French does to modern French-speakers, I would guess. That may have been part of the point of doing it here: Molière has been the dominating presence on the French stage ever since his own day; people know him backwards and forwards, or at least think they do. This may have been one of the few ways left to defamiliarize him and hear him freshly.

There’s clearly a different feeling about these things now, at least among the younger generation. And there’s some interesting background which, via the Wonder that is the Web, I’ve been able to learn a bit of, at odd moments. Benjamin Lazar, the director of the production, is in his early thirties; at age eleven he began studying with Eugène Green, a somewhat shadowy figure of American origins who has lived and taught in France for some forty years. Like another expat, William Christie, he seems to have gained the knack of interpreting for the French their own artistic past. He was probably the first to stage classic French works in period pronunciation, culminating with his 1999 production of Racine’s Mithridate. Apparently he had his troubles with the French theatrical and cultural establishment, but Lazar, like a number of other young French actors, many of whom were also in the BG production, became an enthusiastic follower of his methods.

Green eventually published La parole baroque, a summation of his research, which involved not only language but gesture, movement, iconography, and a whole artistic sensibility that had become foreign to modern performers of this repertoire. After that he turned from theater to filmmaking. His 2004 film, Le Pont des Arts, has shown in art houses here; the plot includes some early music performers in modern-day Paris, with music performed by Le Poème Harmonique, though the musicians in the film are played by actors.

Benjamin Lazar

As for Lazar, he has directed a number of other shows, ranging from baroque opera (Lully’s Cadmus et Hermione, Le Poème Harmonique’s next large production after BG) to modern plays, and continues to act. He may be the preeminent reciter of classic French texts in period pronunciation (I don’t want to go overboard embedding videos, but there’s a nice clip on YouTube of him reciting a fable of La Fontaine that I highly recommend). It’s interesting too that a number of early music performers with whom he has worked, such as the wonderful singer Claire Lefilliâtre, also take acting roles in his shows, and that he is obviously quite musical himself and watches closely what the musicians do; but this is evidently all part of the extraodinary collegiality, breadth, and versatility of these young performers, which bore such remarkable fruit in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Partch in Life

May 19th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

Harry Partch and his marimba eroica, Mills College, 1952. Photo: Carl Mydans

A few months ago I learned of this archive of Life magazine photos of the 1952 production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus, the first version, using the Yeats translation of Sophocles’ play. I was told of it by John Schneider, whose group, Just Strings, has performed a lot of Partch, as well as Lou Harrison and other composers in what could loosely be called the “West Coast just intonation tradition.” He had been sent a copy of my long article on Oedipus by Danlee Mitchell, Partch’s heir and best friend in his later years. I’ve known Danlee a long time, but had not seen him in many years until I ran into him at the 2005 Montclair production of Oedipus, the premier of Partch’s 1969 final revision of the work, which he had flown in on the red eye from California to see, along with Jon Szanto of Corporeal Meadows. My article started out as a review of that production, but by the time it was done it was not very timely. Still, most of the main Partch experts saw it and commented on it, which was gratifying.

John also told me that there had been plans recently to do another production of the first version of Oedipus in California, but the economic situation had put them on hold. Still, he seems to think it may yet happen. He would certainly be instrumental in making it happen, if you’ll pardon the pun. His group has made reproductions of over a dozen Partch instruments (see below). The originals permanently reside in Montclair, New Jersey, under the care of Dean Drummond.

Landmark Bourgeois Gentilhomme

May 17th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

M. Jourdain’s entrance

In France and elsewhere in Europe they’ve been talking about this production ever since it premiered six years ago. Here it is known to early music lovers, because of the splendid performance by Le Poème Harmonique of Lully’s complete score for this, the last and largest of the comédie-ballets he did with Molière. But otherwise I don’t think many on this side of the Atlantic are aware of it. It continues to tour in Europe, but as far as I know has not yet played in North America.

As yet I have only seen clips of the splendid video version, which lists for close to $100 around $20 on Amazon, and is PAL format only, so in the States and Canada you’d also need a region free player to watch it. But it looks well worth it.

I’ll have more to say when I’ve seen the whole thing. But it’s already plain to me that it really is a landmark, particularly for the theater. There have been plenty of good productions of baroque opera in recent decades, but this takes an entirely different direction (this is not opera, for one thing). What it does, in fact, is finally apply all the vitality of the early music movement to the theater. Baroque gesture, dance, pantomime, reconstructed 17th century pronunciation, candle footlights, frontal playing, all done with the greatest conviction, imagination, humor, and verve, and without the slightest concession to “contemporary relevance” or directorial “concepts.” In Europe, where that sort of nonsense has been even more rampant than here, it must seem more than just a breath of fresh air. No wonder people love it.

Not everyone, of course. Some in France haven’t been too wild about the period pronunciation, which is taken pretty far here. Many others are charmed by it. It’s a complicated issue – as one critic points out, to a modern audience the effect is in any case exotic, as it would not have been to an audience of Louis XIV’s time, so “authenticity” in this case defeats itself. But paradoxes of this sort are second nature to the current generation of early musicians, who do not take them (or themselves) too seriously. In the best, like Le Poème Harmonique, what you see is a passion for discovery and reinvention, with very little dogma. Now it seems that spirit has reached the theater as well. At least in France.