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‘Very much below the other arts of the Grecian people’: Modern Adaptations of Ancient Greek Music, 1841-1932

Jon Solomon

The University of Illinois

The 1890s produced the discovery of several ancient Greek musical fragments, particularly the Delphic “Hymn to Apollo.” Describing the music as “weird” and “vexatiously monotonous, tedious, and unmusical,” even academic composers felt compelled to reorchestrate and expand upon the limited corpus of ancient musical texts. (Devrient) These efforts inspired the development of a modified ancient Greek musical idiom that would be palatable to contemporary audiences, and in the following decades ambitious live productions, radio broadcasts, and recordings targeted an even broader demographic spectrum, thereby introducing this adapted style of ancient Greek music to millions of lay consumers.

Beginning with the 1841 Potsdam production of Antigone, Felix Mendelssohn, collaborating with August Böckh, considered setting Sophocles’ choruses in authentic monodic style and scoring instruments approximating the sounds of the aulos, salpinx, and lyre. Finding this to be “impracticable,” he preserved the prosodic rhythms and irregular colometry of the choruses while offering his audiences familiar intervals and melodic contours. (Todd; Seaton) The Times described Mendelssohn’s music as “too modern and at the same time not modern enough,” but “striking by its deep solemnity.” Similarly, for the 1881 Harvard production of Oedipus Tyrannus, Professor John Knowles Paine composed in contemporary idiom, creating doubt that “any music ever heard in Athens was as rich, full, and expressive as that composed by Mr. Paine.” (Northwestern) Although Laura Sedgwick Collins made “a commendable effort to adhere to what little is known of the form of ancient Greek music” for the AADA revival of Sophocles’ Electra in 1889,  neither she nor B. C. Blodgett’s 1889 Electra incorporated the harmonic signatures of ancient Greek music.

The 1893 discovery of Delphi’s “Hymne à Apollon” disappointed Théodore Reinach (REG) and Maxime Collignon, who, lamenting its lack of polyphony and violins, commissioned Gabriel Fauré to compose a harmonized accompaniment. Reaction to the hymn was similarly negative in England and the United States. Hannah Smith, for example, remarked that ancient Greek music was “very much below the other arts of the Grecian people.” (NY Tribune, 1898) Even the 350 delegates attending the 1895 Ann Arbor Classical Conference heard heard it “harmonized in modern style” by Gardner Lamson and Albert A. Stanley. (Detroit Free Press)

Such adaptations persisted into the 1910s, when the earliest American recording of the “Hymn to Apollo” [Victor #35279] and Victor‘s home study course, “The Music of the Greeks,” were marketed. For her popular 1915 Berkeley production of Iphigenia in Aulis, Margaret Anglin had Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, compose in an entirely modern idiom, albeit scored predominantly for flutes, clarinets, and harps. (NY Tribune, 1915; The Sun, 1915) Damrosch “endeavored to reproduce the spirit of the Greek tragedy by using freely the resources of modern musical art, rather than to imitate narrowly the letter of primitive Greek music.” (New York Tribune, 1918) Although David Stanley Smith reportedly derived his melodies for Harley Granville Barker’s 1915 productions of Iphigenia in Tauris and The Trojan Women from the ancient fragments, he nonetheless used medieval modes and scored a number of passages for violins. (New York Tribune, 1915, 1919)

A rare exception was Stanley’s Iphigenia in Tauris. The Classical Weekly declaring the result as an aesthetic triumph, commented:

In the Iphigenia in Tauris the Greek rhythms were closely followed, as they were in Mendelssohn’s music, but here for the first time the Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian modes were freely employed by a master hand and modern harmonies were avoided.

Nonetheless, commercially viable adaptations, like those in Edgar Stillman Kelley’s incidental music for the Broadway production of Ben-Hur, lecture-performances by Isadora Duncan and her brother Raymond, Diana Watts’ illustrated lectures on “The Movement of Greek Statues,” and Theosophist Katherine Tingley’s annual California productions of Greek tragedies, culminating in tenor Tom Nassos’ rendition of the “Hymn to Apollo” at the pre-Olympic festivities in Los Angeles in 1932, garnered public acclaim and commercial success.

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Ancient Music and Cross-Cultural Comparison (organized by MOISA)

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