Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.55

Timothy Power, The Culture of Kitharôidia. Hellenic Studies.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 638.  ISBN 9780674021389.  $18.95 (pb).  



Reviewed by Nicholas Boterf, Stanford University (boterf@stanford.edu)

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Timothy Power in this book has done nothing less than restore ancient kitharôidia to its rightful place as a major genre of ancient music. Kitharôidia, the solo performance on the kithara lyre by an elaborately dressed professional, has often been neglected in the scholarly literature. As he notes in his preface, in the world of Greek poetry kitharôidia has been treated like “an often forgotten, rarely spoken of, and indeed rather mysterious uncle” (xi). The paucity and sheer difficulty of the preserved testimonia have understandably scared away most scholars. Power’s large and very detailed book, however, has more than compensated for this scholarly neglect. His book successfully brings kitharôidia back into the foreground, and will likely remain the definitive treatment of this subject for some time to come.

The book has four major sections, along with plates and an index at the end. It begins in Roman times, with Nero’s citharodic debut at Naples in 64 CE. Power uses this premier of the princeps citharoedus to frame the chapter and to introduce the reader to the world of kitharôidia. Nero’s performance, as Power often emphasizes, reveals practices and mindsets that extend all the way back to archaic Greece. Citharodes were virtuoso superstars, who dazzled the audience with their elaborate instruments and colorful outfits. This outfit, more than mere visual bombast, was itself an expression and extension of the citharode’s musical ability, and even possessed almost talismanic powers. Like modern day rock stars, citharodes had broad sex appeal, cutting across divisions of gender and class. Power does an excellent job of surveying the numerous instances in antiquity where citharodes are objects of lust, whether by a Greek tyrant or a Roman matron.

Besides being expert showmen, citharodes were also consummate professionals. Kitharôidia was immensely popular throughout antiquity, and citharodes were able to draw the attention of entire cities. Antigonus “the One-Eyed”, for example, shrewdly captured Acrocorinth while all of its citizens were busy attending a star citharode’s performance. The high value placed on kitharôidia can be seen in the large prizes awarded to citharodes, sometimes four times as much as other musicians. Citharody was big money, and from the earliest days its practitioners had a mercantile bent. Traveling from city to city, citharodes made it their business to win these contests. Kitharôidia was ideally a blend between music and singing, where neither one dominated, and Power goes into great detail about the various techniques that citharodes used in this regard. Not just their music, but their bodily composure was also judged. Citharodic performances were therefore extremely straining on both the voice and the body, and Power rightly compares them to athletic ordeals.

As for Nero himself, Power analyzes in some detail the broader implications of his support for kitharôidia. He chides scholars for over-emphasizing Nero’s tragic career, when Nero considered himself first and foremost a citharode (8-9). Nero began as a patron of kitharôidia, who observed and studied under the most famed citharode of his day. Power nicely situates Nero’s patronage within a long line of autocratic sponsorship of kitharôidia, stretching back to Periander’s sponsorship of Arion. In tracing out Nero’s career, Power sees Nero as exploiting the ruptures found in Greek culture between amateur and professional music-making. Nero’s hesitancy in competing professionally as a citharode, rather than reflecting an ingrained sense of Roman shame, should be viewed in the context of Greek critiques of professional musicians. Whatever was Nero’s motivation, it is evident that he is enormously responsible for making kitharôidia popular in Rome. After Nero kitharôidia became an inescapable feature of Roman life.

In the book’s second section, Power surveys the different components of a citharodic performance. The performance typically began with an anabolê, an instrumental prelude that served to loosen the citharode’s fingers and concentrate the audience’s attention. Next followed the prooimion, an “introduction” of sorts in dactylic hexameters or a similar meter. The prooimion likely was used self-referentially by citharodes to vaunt their own craft, capture the goodwill of the audience, and praise their host city. Power believes that there is significant overlap and mutual influence between citharodic and rhapsodic prooimia. Like the self-standing rhapsodic Homeric Hymns, it is possible that citharodes also produced longer citharodic prooimia. But by and large, prooimia were short, generic, and recyclable. The third part of the performance was the nomos. Power emphasizes the creative and improvisational nature of the traditional, “Terpandrean” nomos. He usefully compares it to modern jazz, where a song can have substantially different interpretations by different musicians. Indeed a nomos appeared to have been even more open-ended than a jazz song. This musical variety is mirrored by a variety of content: the nomoi appear to have been receptacles for a variety of different texts. It appears that episodes from the Odyssey were performed on a kithara, and likely Iliadic battle-scenes also. Furthermore, cyclic epic themes, especially about the fall of Troy, seem to have been popular- when Nero “fiddles” the Capture of Troy as Rome burns, he is responding to a long tradition of citharodic songs with Trojan themes. More speculatively, Power finds evidence for Orphic, Argonautic, Heracleian, and even Theseid themes in citharodic songs.

In the third part of the book, Power concentrates on the figure of the archetypical citharode himself, Terpander. Terpander lives on the border between “myth” and “history,” and the stories about him portray him in various, sometimes contradictory guises. Instead of trying to extract biographical details about Terpander’s life, Power focuses on how stories about Terpander offer “refractions of deeper and broader ‘cultural truths’” about the performance of kitharôidia (322). Power rightly sees stories about Terpander originating from the earliest traveling citharodes. In their prooimia they likely provided biographical information about their “legendary” founder. Like that of Homer, the name of Terpander could represent an assumed persona, and in performance everybody could become a new iteration of “Terpander.” Power locates the origins of these singers in a cult of the Muses at Terpander’s “birthplace,” Antissa. These original “Lesbian singers” became prominent in the Spartan Carneia festival and racked up a string of victories there, unbroken until the sixth century. It is likely that stories about Terpander’s role in the founding of the games at the Carneia were themselves propagated by these citharodes, probably at the festival itself. Another layer of his vita was added by the late fifth century performer Timotheus, who, in his concluding sphragis to the Persians, boldly places himself in the same tradition as Orpheus and Terpander. Timotheus’ own run-ins with the Spartan authorities seemed to have sparked stories about how Terpander’s own strings were cut. This section ends with discussing Pindar’s strange claim that Terpander invented sympotic skolia. Power sees it reflecting Pindar’s own song-making practice, and suggests that it is intended to flatter his patron Hiero’s own investment in citharodic culture.

In the fourth and final section, Power analyzes kitharôidia and its place at the Panathenaic festival. After the eclipse of the Lesbian citharodes at the Carneian festival, the Panathenaic festival became one of the most important venues for kitharôidia. Not only did the art of kitharôidia here witness the change from tyranny to democracy in Athens, but also the change from the conservative “Terpandrean” style to the more polymorphic style favored by New Music. The Peisistratids were primarily responsible for establishing Athens as an important center for kitharôidia . Power interprets the tyrants’ promotion of kitharôidia in light of their alleged hostility to Delphi, as an attempt to rival the Pythian citharodic agônes. Power paints a colorful picture of the Panathenaic festival under the tyrants, where elites enjoyed kitharôidia along with their demotic fellow-citizens, and sometimes even performed themselves in a quasi-professional capacity. Although kitharôidia was actively promoted by the tyrants, the art form was not discredited by the advent of the democracy. One important development during this period is that the masses became more confident and self-assured in critiquing kitharôidia (exemplified by Dicaeopolis’ negative comments about various citharodes at the beginning of the Acharnians) (lns. 13-16). These citizens, up to the late fifth century, could expect to hear the traditional style of the Terpandrean nomos, but that too began to change. Practitioners of “New Music” began to free themselves from traditional musical categories. Content mirrored form, and citharodes began to take an interest in the exotic and insane, subject matters that justified their musical experimentation. Popular audiences were distinctly ambivalent about this new style of music, and gendered critiques of it as “soft” and “effeminate” began to emerge. In the last pages of the book, Power focuses on the best preserved example of this New Music, Timotheus’ Persians, and contextualizes it within this rhetoric. Power, intriguingly enough, stresses the relative conservatism of this nomos, especially when taking into account Timotheus’ earlier claims to innovation. Since this work was likely performed in 410 BC, a year after an oligarchic coup, he sees Timotheus presenting himself as a new Terpander, implicitly promising to unite the citizen-body with his song. And in his afterlife, it appeared that he was successful: Timotheus became a classic, and his poems became popular entertainment in their own right.

As I hope this summary shows, this is a very impressive book, nothing short of magisterial: a concise review like this one cannot possibly do it complete justice. Power successfully draws on a wide range of evidence, from ancient art to inscriptions to texts, even incorporating insights from anthropology and musicology. In his search for ancient kitharôidia , no stone remains unturned; for instance, an odd notice in Pliny the Elder that Simonides invented the 8th string of the lyre results in a discussion on Simonides’ possible influence on New Music. Multiple other equally learned digressions could be cited. The book is also helped immensely by Power’s style, which manages to be very precise yet relaxed and conversational.

There are, however, points with which to quibble. In Power’s zeal to bring kitharôidia back to the forefront, he sometimes finds it in some questionable places. One can question, for instance, Power’s assertion that Plato has in mind primarily kitharôidia in his famous description of the man who mimics everything in Republic 397a-b (as he admits in a footnote, this could be a composite of various types of media favored by New Music) (139-40). One can also question whether Sappho 44 V (“The Wedding of Hector and Andromache”) takes its inspiration from an Aeolic citharodic treatment, rather than a cyclic, Ionian epic (260-3). In the same vein, I wonder if Pindar’s Pythian 4 really represents a “Steisichorean” attempt to emulate kitharôidia rather than some epic Argonautica, as is mentioned in Odyssey 12.69-70. But this, once again, is to quibble, and such speculation is a necessary part of any effort to restore kitharôidia to the status of a major Greek genre. This book remains a breakthrough, and is required reading for Classicists of all stripes.

The index is generally rich and full. However, there are some surprising omissions- for instance, “Muses” is not listed (though “Mouseia festival” is). And the footnotes, although often well-represented, are sometimes not fully indexed. This is a shame, since many of his footnotes contain very interesting technical discussions, and one often wants to quickly find out what Power says about a particular topic. I found no significant typos.

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Princeps Citharoedus
Part 2: Anabolê, Prooimion, Nomos: Form and Content of Citharodic Songs
Part 3: Inventions of Terpander
Part 4: Panathenaic Kitharôidia

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