The Agamemnon of Aeschylus

This is the oldest of my large-scale translation projects, begun in the mid-seventies and completed only in 2011. “Completed” is not quite accurate: there is still (as of 2012) a full musical score to come, and choreography. Performance is the work’s raison d’être. The translation, though, is essentially done.

The Agamemnon translation is planned as the third ebook from Spoken & Sung, after the Little Tragedies of Pushkin and The Woes of Wit of Griboyedov, second edition. I have had favorable comments on the translation, and I would like to solicit further comments from classical scholars, poets, translators, theater people, and interested readers. If you would like to read it before publication, please contact me directly.


I first read the Agamemnon in Greek several years after leaving college, where I had studied Greek drama under the late Gerald Else. With its oratorio-like alternation of chorus and dialogue, the form had always intrigued me. It brought to mind the one work of art that overshadowed every other in my teenage years: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Reading Aeschylus in the original had a similar impact, though a much more mediated one. It wasn’t possible to actually hear it the way one could hear the Bach. My attempt to hear Aeschylus, or something like him, was the catalyst for a good deal of my artistic direction over the subsequent thirty years.

The comparison might seem inapt. Aeschylus, after all, was a writer, Bach a composer. But music, in ancient Greece, was the province of the poets. Composing as a separate profession barely existed in Aeschylus’s time. And to anyone trying to grapple with the complex verse meters and intricate strophic structures of the Agamemnon, it’s clear that here was a formidable musical mind at work, musical not just in the vague way that we often call poets “musical” today. Clearly he was building up large tonal and rhythmic wholes that were meant to be performed and heard, even if we can no longer hear them.

But I began to think that more might be heard than was generally supposed. The musical “notes” were indeed lost, but Greek poetic meter was fairly well understood, and musical rhythm apparently followed the verse meters closely. There was also considerable knowledge about the pronunciation of the language, though it was knowledge rarely put into practice. It was around this time that I began reciting Greek verse in strict meter, using a “reconstructed” pronunciation with pitch accent. For the first time it seemed to me that I was hearing a bit of the ancient poets’ music.

At the same time, I was beginning to experiment with “new” verse meters in English, both in drafts of translations from Aeschylus and other Greek poets, and in my own poetry. These were not meant to be “imitations” of classical meters, but in some sense “equivalents” to them, in the same way that English blank verse had been used since the Renaissance as an equivalent to the meter used for spoken dialogue in ancient plays, a practice that I followed both in translating Agamemnon and later in my own Greek-inspired play, The Ghost Dancers.

Many translations of Greek plays have used blank verse. But in addition to spoken dialogue, there are the sections in “lyric” meters, sung mainly by the chorus but sometimes by individual characters as well, or with solo and chorus in alternation. And finally there are sections, again mostly for the chorus, that are in a special meter that suggests something between speech and song; a kind of “chant” for lack of a better word. (You can listen here to recited examples of these three basic types of verse)

For the “lyric” sections, there was another traditional equivalent of sorts that many translators had used: rhymed stanzas, which could be paired into song “verses” matching the strophes and antistrophes of the Greek. The introduction of rhyme, however, which was absent from the Greek, gave the verses a whole different feel. And though different rhyme schemes and line lengths could theoretically be used to give variety to the shape of a stanza, in practice this was a rather feeble substitute for the distinctive and varied strophic shapes of the original. Still, there have been some fine verses “after the Greek” written in rhymed stanzas.

When it came to the “chanted” sections, most translators – at least the ones who understood the problem – simply threw up their hands. In Greek these were in a continuous succession of anapests, not broken into lines or strophes. Anapests were traditionally a march rhythm in Greek, and in extant drama they are often used for choral entrances and exits. They have been tried in English, but the effect is not the same. Here I came up with something that seemed to me a better “equivalent.” It was not really a new meter; it even had a name: dipodic verse. It was mostly confined to light verse and nursery rhymes, however. I found that it could be effective without rhyme and with slightly less of a patter, and that the sense units of the original fit quite nicely into dipodic phrasing, in a way that mimicked the anapestic phrasing fairly well. I later used the meter for the entrance and exit choruses of The Ghost Dancers.

For the lyric portions I eventually settled on various types of unrhymed accentual verse stanzas. At first I tried to keep a close match between the accentual patterns of paired stanzas, and even the numbers of syllables in them, in order to imitate the strophe-antistrophe responsion in the original, but as time went on I became less strict about this. It was clear that these sorts of details would make sense only in conjunction with actual music. At that early stage I had not yet begun composing, and it was only when resuming the translation many years later, having composed music for the Ghost Dancers and numerous other texts, mostly my own, that I started to have a clearer idea of what the music would sound like, and to what extent it would need to reflect the stanzaic structure of the lyrics.

About the music I can’t say much more at this point, since it is not yet finished. It would be idle to speak of it as an attempted “reconstruction” of the original music. All that survives of that is the outline of its rhythm that the verse gives, its strophic structure, and the different “movements” into which it falls. That is not nothing, but it obviously leaves an almost totally open field in terms of musical approach. There is no reason not to avail oneself of the vast musical resources that have come into being since ancient times, and I do so freely, though selectively. The only constraint I observe in terms of “fidelity” is the one that, from all the evidence, was observed by Aeschylus himself, and all the tragic poets: to make the words and the story emerge with the utmost clarity and impact. In the context of our modern musical traditions, especially the “classical” one, that in itself is still fairly radical.