Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ancient Music: Euripides' Orestes

The Remorse of Orestes, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Euripides' Orestes (Ορέστης) was produced in 408BC, 50 years after Aeschylus' Orestia and its topsy turvy plot takes place between the Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι, Choēphoroi) and the Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες.) Here Orestes, son of King Agamemnon, has just wrought vengeance on the murderer of his father. Yet it was his own mother, Clytmnestra, who killed the king and now the Furies pursue Orestes, driving him mad for the matricide.

Yet it is not solely for the great and terrible saga of the house of Atreus or the dramatic and political dimensions of Orestes that the play is important. In 1892 papyri of the play dating to the 3rd  century were discovered at Hermopolis, and one of the scraps contained  musical notation. The papyrus is damaged and incomplete and whether the music is truly by the hand of Euripides is not entirely certain. Still, the fragment is a fascinating and revealing glimpse at ancient music and [musical]-theater for while we know the Greek culture was highly musical, precious little written music survives.

Bearing in mind our significant lacunae in understanding the Greek modes with any precision, the Lydian mode, in which this music was written, was said by Aristotle to produce "a moderate and settled temper" (Politics, III.5, 1340b) and Plato described the "mixed" and "tense" (συντονο-) Lydian modes as "dirgelike" (Republic, III.398e) and the Lydian as "soft" (μαλακαί) and even "for drinking-songs" (συμποτικαὶ) and "loose" (χαλαραὶ.) Writing what perhaps seems most appropriate for this piece, Cassiodorus wrote that the Lydian "is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly for that of the body." (PL, LXIX, 571C)

The voices were possibly but not certainly accompanied by a kithara and an aulos, which were often used to accompany solo lyrics in competitions and festivals. The monophony of the piece emphasizes its chant-like quality.

The meter is the very variable dochmiac verse, used mostly in tragedy and for moments of great joy or grief. Scansion and transliteration of the first four lines follows, (u = short & – = long.)

N.B. The 1892 papyrus orders the lines differently than other manuscripts, so please note the line numbers.

uuu–u–/uuu–u– (341) ka-to-lo-phy-ro-mai / ka-to-lo-phy-ro-mai
–uu–u–/uuu–u– (339) ma-ter-os hai-ma sas /  ho s’a-na-bac-cheu-ei
uuu–u–/–uu–u– (340) ho me-gas ol-bos ou / mo-ni-mos en bro-tois
uuu–u– (341) a-na de lai-phos hos

ματέρος αἷμα σᾶς, ὅ σ᾽ ἀναβακχεύει;
ὁ μέγας ὄλβος οὐ μόνιμος ἐν βροτοῖς: 340
κατολοφύρομαι κατολοφύρομαι.
ἀνὰ δὲ λαῖφος ὥς
τις ἀκάτου θοᾶς τινάξας δαίμων
κατέκλυσεν δεινῶν πόνων ὡς πόντου
λάβροις ὀλεθρίοισιν ἐν κύμασιν.

Complete translation and transliteration of the text: [Link]

Within this ancient play we have a moment of the sacred, with music amplifying the emotion of the scene and the larger drama. The tonality, meter, and text all produce a haunting moment in which the Argive women plead for the tortured son of the slain king:

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