Unheard Melodies: Music and Meaning in Ancient Greek and Roman Theater

Timothy J. Moore

Citation with persistent identifier: Moore, Timothy J. “Unheard Melodies: Music and Meaning in Ancient Greek and Roman Theater.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:MooreT.Unheard_Melodies.2019


Virtually all theater in the Greco-Roman world was musical theater. Iambic trimeters were almost always spoken without accompaniment, but other meters were almost always sung or chanted to the accompaniment of the aulos. We can therefore tell from the texts of ancient plays when actors sang or chanted and when they spoke without accompaniment. In addition, the quantitative meters of Greek and Latin reveal to a great extent the rhythms sung. Using this association between meter and music, I am preparing a web site charting musical patterns in ancient plays, and publications in which I will discuss various aspects of ancient drama’s music: how music first begins, musical repetitions within plays, musical echoes between plays, music and the power of dramatic characters, how music reinforces emotion, the musical ways plays end, and continuities and changes in theatrical music over time. During my time at the Center for Hellenic Studies I concentrated on metrical patterns in the plays of Euripides and their musical implications. Careful attention to the texts of each of Euripides’ plays and their meters reveals a common Euripidean pattern: in most of his plays Euripides introduces early in the play a musical surprise. Echoes of that surprise and other musical repetition later in the play underline key themes.


Most of my research for the last two decades has been dedicated to music in Roman theater. Drawing analogies from modern musical theater, I have examined the plays of Plautus, Terence, and Seneca and the fragments of other Roman playwrights keeping two principles in mind. First, a metrical distinction in the texts of Roman plays tells us in most cases when actors sang or chanted to the accompaniment of the two-piped double reed tibia and when they spoke without accompaniment: one meter, the iambic senarius, was almost always unaccompanied, while other meters were accompanied. Second, the quantitative meters of Latin poetry tell us much about the rhythms sung by Roman actors. With just a few changes, these same principles apply to Greek drama. We can be confident that with only a few exceptions, iambic trimeters, the Greek equivalent of iambic senarii, were spoken without accompaniment and lyric meters were sung to the accompaniment of the aulos (the Greek equivalent of the tibia). Other meters, such as nonlyric anapests and trochaic and iambic tetrameters, appear to have been performed sometimes with accompaniment, sometimes without. Greek, like Latin, has a quantitative meter, so when it was sung long syllables would normally be equivalent to our quarter notes, short syllables to our eighth notes. My goal, therefore, is to see what meter can tell us about musical patterns throughout ancient drama, both Greek and Latin.

As I turned to Greek theater, I realized two things. The first was that Euripides would be the best place to start. Besides offering the largest corpus of Greek musical drama, Euripides marks a great transition in ancient theatrical music, incorporating both the choral, strophic rhythms of earlier Greek drama and newer styles that emphasize astrophic monodies. Those astrophic monodies were to become the dominant mode of musical performance by the time of Plautus and Terence. Second, I realized that the best way to grasp musical patterns would be to look for metrical repetition. Euripides, I found, often repeats the same meters at different points within a play with important thematic results.

I therefore dedicated my two months at the Center for Hellenic Studies to analysis of the metrical patterns of Euripides’ plays, concentrating especially on music in the earliest scenes of plays and on metrical/musical repetition. I had produced before my arrival in Washington charts of all the plays’ metrical changes. At the Center I refined these charts, evaluated what the metrical patterns suggested about Euripides’ musical aims, and considered the wider context of the metrical changes through reading in secondary scholarship on Euripides, Greek tragedy, and ancient music.

At the core of my work at the Center were two Euripidean plays, the very early Medea (431 BCE), and Orestes, from late in Euripides’ career (408 BCE). I had already observed before my time in Washington that Medea offered a significant musical surprise followed by significant musical repetition. In an unexpected move, Medea delivers anapests early in the play, and then anapests return at important moments throughout the play. The surprise and repetition reinforce the audience’s sense of Medea’s power as she plots and carries out her revenge.

Orestes, I found, employed similar techniques of surprise and repetition, though with very different results. Here musical patterns underline the play’s terrifying sense of ever-increasing chaos. The play’s music begins with dochmiacs, Greek drama’s most frenetic meter, even though Electra and the chorus are trying not to wake the sleeping Orestes. Begun by Electra then continued by the chorus, the dochmiacs underline the power of Electra over the Argive women. The combination of dochmiacs with domination over the chorus by Electra continues throughout the play, underlining how the chorus become accomplices, caught up in the violent chaos of the play’s climax.

The similarity of musical patterns in the early Medea and the late Orestes led me to hypothesize that musical surprise and repetition are standard Euripidean techniques. My initial examination of the rest of Euripides’ corpus appears to bear this out. In Alcestis, for example, Death, surprisingly, enters with anapests early in the play, and then anapests return throughout the play to remind the audience of Death’s presence in the house of Admetus. The unparalleled elegiac couplets that open the music of Andromache lead to patterns of dactyls succeeded by other meters throughout the play, suggesting that much of the play is a failed attempt to recreate the world of epic, which would be described in dactylic hexameters. The unusual ionics that open the music of Bacchae return repeatedly to characterize the play’s foreign chorus but are replaced by other meters when the suffering of the Thebans overshadows the celebration of the Asian women.

The original goal of my research was to produce a book on music in ancient theater and a web site charting all of ancient Greek and Roman drama’s metrical changes. The richness of the Euripidean material I studied at the Center demonstrated that while the web site should indeed be comprehensive, a book specifically on Euripidean theater should be my next step, with other authors to be addressed in future publications. The web site and my publications will allow students, theater practitioners, and scholars—not only in classics, but also in music, theater studies, and other fields—to understand more clearly just what it meant that ancient theater was musical theater. Repeated performance and adaptations today of ancient plays, especially those of Euripides, demonstrate that ancient plays speak to contemporary audiences and prove valuable tools for thinking about vital issues. Meanwhile, by understanding the musical aspect of plays so central to the history of theater, we will gain important insights for our own day, when musical theater has become by far the most popular way in which the contemporary stage responds to questions both aesthetic and social.


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