Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.27

Karl Reichl (ed.), The Oral Epic: Performance and Music.   Berlin:  Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2000.  Pp. 246.  ISBN 3-86135-643-0.  DM 68.  

Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, Odense, Denmark (
Word count: 2500 words


Karl Reichl, Gregory Nagy, Stephen Erdely, Wolf Dietrich, Margaret H. Beissinger, Dzamilya Kurbanova, Emina Gürsoy-Naskali, Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, Carole Pegg, Nicole Revel, Christiane Seydou, Joseph Harris, and John Stevens

This collection of essays is the printed outcome of a colloquium in Bonn during September 1997 about music as an integral part of the performance of epic. The subject of the volume is described (p. vii) as "The analysis of at least some of these traditions and the implications of their study for traditional medieval epics (and possibly also the Homeric poems)". Besides preface and introduction, the volume contains one article on Homer, three on modern Balkan traditions, five on oral epics in Central Asia, one concerned with the Philippines, one with Africa, and two about Old Norse poetry. The book might be called a gift from field-workers to philologists, and hopefully these will accept it as such. It is important for any classical scholar as an aid to understanding Homeric epic and other genres meant for oral performance. But the contributions are uneven in quality, and not all authors are equally careful to concentrate on the overall topic of the book.

In his "Introduction: The Music and Performance of Oral Epics" (1-40), Karl Reichl gives an admirable survey of what is at present known in the field. He underlines what a serious loss it is that epics known only from written transmission are words without music. The relation between words and music varies from one genre to another, and from one epic tradition to another, but music and its presence or absence is always an important aspect of epic. Using examples from Russian bylina (an epic tradition whose most famous heroes belong to medieval Kiev) he sets up various parameters for the description of epic melodies and discusses the verbs most commonly used in describing the vocal side of epic performance. Reichl also writes of the social context of epic and points to the fact that the surroundings of Odysseus' apologoi are in many respects strikingly similar to an average situation for epic performance. In pp. 26-8 he gives a useful list of editions of oral epic which include music. He comments on Gordon Innes, who distinguishes three modes of performance, a speech mode, a recitation mode, and a song mode. He concludes with the hope that the book "will enhance an awareness of the oral epic as a poetico-musical form which is only incompletely appreciated when music (and more generally performance) is ignored" (p. 34).

Gregory Nagy is as exciting as ever in his "Epic as Music: Rhapsodic Models of Homer in Plato's Timaeus and Critias" (41-67). He aims at reconstructing the special Homeric performance which took place at the Panathenaea, and reviews the sources, literary as well as epigraphic. To these often discussed passages he adds two Platonic dialogues, and by means of a subtle reading of them as influenced by the rhapsodes' "relay performance" he offers a new and original description of what Homeric performance in Athens might have been like. His contribution has little to say about music; it would have been natural in this connexion at least to mention the vexed question of the role of instruments in the ancient Greek epic tradition.

Stephen Erdely opens the Balkans section with his "Music of South Slavic Epics" (69-82). It is based on the Milman Parry collection and tries to distinguish between elements of uniformity in the musical accompaniment and elements that the singers made their own. This resembles former generations' efforts to study "das Homerische an Homer", and I should much rather have had a general description of the kind of music Parry's singers performed.

Wolf Dietrich, "The Singing of Albanian Heroic Poetry" (83-94), is disappointing, being a description of a brief single expedition during which Dietrich recorded two singers in the vicinity of Lezha. But it has a detailed and interesting discussion of the one-stringed instrument with which Albanian epic is accompanied, the lahuta, and its place in the history of instruments.

More substantial is the contribution by Margaret H. Beissinger, "Creativity in Performance: Words and Music in Balkan and Old French Epic" (95-113). Stimulated by Johannes de Grocheo's description (c. 1300) of Old French epic singing as monotonous, Beissinger studies the music of three Romanian singers, two professionals and one amateur, for their register of musical variation, and concludes that the overall impression of their singing is in fact rather monotonous, but that the better you know the music, the more sensitive you become to variations. The professional singers are more varied in their musical performance than the amateur. From this she returns to the music of the chansons de geste and suggests that their very length and complexity demanded the singers' attention to such a degree that they could not also be excellent musicians. This remains unconvincing; the medieval writer's statement may have been subjective, and, given the variety that the present book documents, comparisons can hardly be made so directly from one tradition to another. However, the paper as such is interesting and central to the common theme. Beissinger's reflexions are full of insights, offering the reader both valuable information of the tradition she knows and perspectives for epic as such. To her the importance of music is mainly stylistic: "Music places speech (unmarked) in the realm of song (marked)", she writes on p. 96.

Dzamilya Kurbanova, "The Singing Traditions of Turkmen Epic Poetry" (115-28), gives a fascinating view of a rich and varied tradition, but describes it in a way which often leaves the reader slightly bewildered. Epic in Turkmenistan seems to be subdivided according to a whole set of different parameters; Kurbanova speaks of different geographical regions, 'schools', and styles, but also of social status of individual performers, religious demands on some of them, and of singing, reading and story-telling. When she mentions various branches of the epic and also states that songs are not performed from beginning to end, but as excerpts (p. 122-3), one wonders if that is what other scholars might have described as a tradition in which each song tells an episode belonging to a cycle. If this is the case, the term excerpt is problematic, conveying as it does the impression that there exists one continuous epic out of which a singer may cut individual passages for performing. To Homeric scholars interested in the place of the Iliad and the Odyssey in a Homeric tradition, such passages in Kurbanova's article are tantalizing.

The editor's own field-work contribution, "The Performance of the Karakalpak Zhyrau" (129-50), is excellent from all points of view. In a clear and well-ordered fashion, taking into account that to most of his readers the subject will be new, Reichl describes epic traditions among various Turkmen peoples in Central Asia and Siberia. He surveys existing scholarship (Radloff, the Chadwicks, Bowra, and Zhirmunskiy) and then concentrates on the Karakalpak. He introduces us to their history, geography, and culture, and only afterwards to their poetic traditions, with two types of singers, baqsy and zhyrau. The latter perform heroic epic to an instrument called qobyz, mentioned already in the Old Turkish Book of Dede Korkut. Reichl focuses on one singer, born in 1927, whom he has recorded twice performing the "same" epic. According to the artist, the poem lasts 3-5 evenings, while of Reichl's recordings one, recorded in several sessions, lasts 11 hours in all, and the other is somewhat shorter. He does not go into further detail about the relationship between the two recordings, but instead describes gesticulation, mimicry, and music. The text is stichic, syllabic, and regular, and the music is accordingly repetitive but not monotonous. He gives an overview of related traditions and their performance modes, seeing them in a scale from stichic to strophic. In some cases various forms of dramatization take place, and there are also examples of performance in which declaiming of prose and singing of verse go together. In concluding he suggests that it might be helpful to distinguish between a practical, an aesthetic, and a performative function of epic music.

Emina Gürsoy-Naskali, "Dudak degmez: A form of Poetry Competition among the Asiks of Anatolia" (151-8), states that Oral epic proper no longer exists in Turkey but various other, briefer genres do. Asiks are folk poets who perform with or without instruments, and since 1966 they have met in yearly competitions in Konya. Their art has developed various strange forms, such as a competition of improvising poetry which must not contain any labial sounds. To a classicist, this has a curious similarity to the lost epic poems by Nestor from Laranda and Tryphiodorus, who are reported to have composed an Iliad and an Odyssey respectively in which the letter a was forbidden in song 1, b in song 2 etc.

In Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, "The Musical Curtain: Music as a Structural Marker in Epic Performance" (159-69) a special function of music is discussed, that of serving as an interlude, dividing continued performance into as it were chapters. Pabuji epic in Rajasthan, Kesar epic in Baltistan and Gorgholi epic in northern Afghanistan are the traditions in question. The telling of a single episode may take several nights, and the singer has a habit of breaking off at exciting points and asking for presents. Sakata refers to a melody which the Chadwicks called monotonous but which on closer view revealed various kinds of embellishment. When instrumental music occurs without text, it functions as a 'curtain' to mark shifts between sections.

Carole Pegg, "The Power of Performance: West Mongolian Heroic Epics" (171-90), notes that epic was widespread in pre-Soviet Mongolia. During the Stalinist period authorities attempted to eliminate traditions, or to change them so that they could be used in the creation of a unified socialist identity. Nevertheless the tradition still exists. There has been some controversy over the social status of the singers. According to Pegg they are typically shepherds, and their performance is considered to have magic power. A text may not be left unfinished; it must be absolutely correct; and nothing may be changed. The bard undergoes a highly specialised training, which may take a full decade, and it is documented that a singer has been able to repeat a text unaltered after twenty years. Some hold that the hero himself is present during performance to control the truth of the story. Nevertheless songs change: a singer's daughter was anxious when she found a written version which differed from the one she knew. Written and oral tradition cooperate and are in equal esteem, and the singers are of the opinion that they pass on an unbroken tradition. To the scholar the songs reveal a common basic structure which allows for individual variation. The paper concludes with a survey of the creative spectrum singers have. This is a very good article describing a fascinating tradition.

Nicole Revel's contribution, "Singing Epics among the Palawan Highlanders (Phillippines): Musical and Vocal Styles" (191-210) is less impressive. Her material is relevant enough, epic recordings made in 1970-72 in Palawan; at that time the singer was accompanied by a fluteplayer, whose music "traced" the narrative, a praxis that has in the meantime disappeared. However, she is difficult to follow because description blends with interpretation in a way which makes it impossible to see what is tradition and what is Revel.

Christiane Seydou, however, offers a relevant and informative paper on "Word and Music: The Epic Genre of the Fulbe of Massina (Mali)" (211-24). Like Reichl and Pegg she gives the reader both survey and details. Her field-work is concerned with the Fulbe (= Fulani or Peul), and to start with she sketches their whole spectrum of poetic genres and the place of epic inside it. A first division is between "spoken" and "sung" genres, the next between genres without or with musical accompaniment. Epic is a spoken genre with instrumental music; either the singer is himself playing a lute, or he is accompanied by a musician. Music is part of the semantics of epic: the singer's master has his musical motto, and so has the hero of the poem. Instrumental music illustrates and adds depth to dramatic episodes and helps the audience afterwards remember what was told in the epic. According to Seydou, the singer's words act as an interpretation of the music; the hero's musical motto identifies him immediately to the audience, and the singer's task is to add words to the music. In this way music and instrument play an integral part in the action. As an example, Seydou has chosen a passage in which a hero sends out all the professional singers of his fief to seek for a special melody.

Joseph Harris, "The Performance of Old Norse Eddic Poetry: A Retrospective" (225-32) is a brief and competent discussion of what to conclude about the performance of Eddic poetry, with a useful survey of the available sources.

John Stevens, "Reflections on the Music of Medieval Narrative Poetry" (233-48) serves as a conclusion to one of the main topics of the volume: What can we infer from field-work experience to the study of traditions transmitted only in writing? His period is the high Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400, and he takes as his point of departure Johannes de Grocheio's treatise, De musica (mentioned also by Erdely and Beissinger). He goes through the passages in medieval texts in which performance is mentioned and states -- interestingly, if also somewhat sadly -- that the symposium has made him much less confident about how to imagine medieval performance.

For a classicist, the most important benefit of this volume is that it adds to the reader's impression of the scope and refinement of oral epic. Far too many Homeric scholars still think of South Slavic epic as the only source for oral poetry and even dismiss the relevance of field-work for understanding Homer with the argument that Parry and Lord's South Slavic examples are inferior to Homer in both beauty and length. With this volume Reichl and his colleagues have given us easy access to traditions often not brought into the discussion of oral poetry. Precisely when so much attention is payed to the question of Homeric performance it is exciting to be told of melody and instruments, and from this point of view the volume will serve as a reminder to classicists not to jump to easy conclusions about the sound of Homer.

Some of the variety may be caused by various scholarly traditions. For instance, when Beissinger states that "Romanian singers concentrate on the words -- not the music -- of their songs" (p. 95-96, cf. p. 106) and Seydou that "the music precedes the words for the definition of the character" (p. 217), I wonder whether the difference is in the material or in the field-workers' approach. Similarly, several of the authors discuss whether epic music is monotonous, but since this concept is normally pejorative it is not really a useful description. What comes through forcefully is a rich picture of epic traditions differing widely in scope, performance, and social function, but still similar enough to be meaningfully compared. Abundant and carefully chosen examples contribute to the value of this rich and thought-provoking book.

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