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Dramatic Melodies: Three Examples of Musical Style from Karanis (P. Mich. inv. 2958)

Rebecca A Sears

Washington University in St. Louis

In this paper, I will discuss three musical phrases from the mid-second century C.E. Karanis musical papyrus (DAGM no. 42) that exemplify the expressive potential of ancient Greek music. These examples demonstrate the compositional techniques of text painting (line 16; Αἰγίσθου λέγεις), motivic development (lines 1, 3, and 5; ὦ φίλτατε), and harmonic modulation (line 9; δίδαξον). I contend that the composer of the Karanis musical papyrus employs these devices with deliberate expertise to enhance the emotive power of this iambic dialogue, and further, that the use of these particular techniques demonstrates the variety of compositional procedures available to ancient Greek composers working after the introduction of the New Music in the late 5th century B.C.E.

On account of the extensive melismata in line 5 and the high proportion of syllables that receive multiple semeia (note symbols), M. L. West has described the musical style of this papyrus as “notably florid” (315, cf. Johnson 58f.). West’s negative stylistic judgment implies that the Karanis musical papyrus, along with other second-century C.E. musical documents (e.g., DAGM no. 41, the Yale papyrus), represent a baroque decline from a mid-fifth century B.C.E. austere ideal (e.g., West 202, 372-385). However, I contend that a negative assessment of the musical style of the Karanis papyrus is unwarranted. The relative absence of substantial melismata from the extant musical papyri should not be taken as incontrovertible evidence that such passages were infrequent in Greek music; instead, the Karanis and Yale papyri are exceptional in preserving such vocal cadenzas, along with many other instances of the expressive relationship between music and text.

Although observations concerning the emotive impact of music are subjective and often specific to each musical culture, in the case of the surviving Greek musical documents, three factors—the relationship of the musical setting of a specific word to its context, comparison with other musical documents, and theoretical discussions of text setting in New Music—suggest the general importance of harmonizing musical and textual emotion, and even permit close analysis of specific examples. For example, the unexpectedly simple setting of Aegisthus’ name in line 16 (four semeia distributed over the three syllables of Αἰγίσθου) underscores the negative connotations surrounding Clytemnestra’s lover, especially when contrasted with the intricate melismata that accompany the triple repetition of ὦ φίλτατε in the preceding recognition scene. The composer has thus de-emphasized Aegisthus through his refusal to accord his name the melodic prominence usually given to such mythological characters (West 203). Moreover, in this particular case, the composer’s careful attention to word painting may reveal as much about the plot of this tragedy as do the surviving words of the text. In contrast to West’s observation that “it is difficult to find parallels for this sort of thing in the post-Hellenistic fragments” (202), I argue that the composer of the Karanis musical papyrus was deeply responsive to the expressive potential of his text, and attempted to convey its emotions to his audience through the sympathetic composition of the associated music.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy (2)

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