BMCR 2004.07.16

Music and the Muses: The Culture of Mousike in the Classical Athenian City

, , Music and the Muses : the culture of 'Mousikē in the classical Athenian city. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiii, 438 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199242399 £65.00.

The word μουσική, like so many Greek nouns, is exceptionally difficult to translate into English. ‘Music’ does not adequately cover the range of meanings, which also includes (for example) song, dance, performance, poetry, art, literature, education, and religion. What we have here, in essence, are thirteen essay-long attempts at a translation — a sophisticated, historically aware, culturally situated type of translation. However we are to understand it, μουσική is seen to be at the centre of Athenian society and politics.

This is a stimulating and wide-ranging (yet remarkably coherent) collection of essays, a marvellous addition to the growing body of scholarly literature on Athens as a ‘performance culture’.1 As such, it is likely to appeal more to ancient historians than to readers whose interests lie in the technical or aesthetic aspects of Greek music. There is comparatively little here about what ancient music actually sounded like (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of the evidence). Instead, most of the essays are concerned with the contexts in which music was performed and the function of performance within these various contexts.

The volume is divided into four sections which deal with μουσική in the spheres of religion, theatre, politics, and education. I offer below a very brief critical summary of each of the essays, which should give some impression (at least) of their interest and variety.

First of all, Alex Hardie (11-37) investigates evidence for a connection between the Muses and mystery-cult. No one seems to have worshipped the Muses, as such, in classical Athens, so the connection will have to be perceived in a non-literal sense. Certainly, as Hardie illustrates, music and performance played an important (and variable) role in cult ritual; he goes on to argue, more generally, that ‘wisdom about the kosmos’ is equally associated with poets, musicians, and mystery-cult. Hardie’s discussion of the effect of musical or ritual performance on individual participants is particularly good; his remarks on the power of music to effect katharsis, discussed only in passing (18), have interesting consequences which could be explored further in regard to cult ritual.

Barbara Kowalzig’s essay, ‘Changing choral worlds’ (39-65), is concerned with the connections between musical performance, ritual, and politics. Kowalzig shows that music plays a role in strategies to control political participation. Not only in Athens but elsewhere in Greece, it can be seen that the state takes a great interest in the organization of choral (dramatic, dithyrambic, lyric) performances, and social structures are closely linked to the public organization of rituals and choruses. Athens is seen as ‘the choral state’ (65) — a memorable description (which, incidentally, might have made a more punchy title for this essay). Kowalzig argues that as political structures change, so too does choral performance: this is how new genres, and new ways of treating myths, come into existence. Kowalzig’s argument is largely convincing, though some may feel that she overstates the degree to which individual poets (and, especially, tragedians) are controlled by the state when writing their lyrics. A certain degree of exaggeration is also seen elsewhere. For instance, Kowalzig quotes the statement of the ‘Old Oligarch’ ([Xen.], Ath. Pol. 1.13) that citizens were paid to dance in the chorus, and states: ‘this must mean that dancing in the khoros was perceived as contributing as much to the running of the polis as any of the other jobs that made up the much-invoked democratic way of life’ (40). ( Must it have this meaning? Did it contribute exactly as much as, say, jury-service or attendance at the assembly?) But this sort of thing scarcely reduces the overall power of her argument.

Ian Rutherford (67-90) deals with the role of music and ritual in inter-state politics. He presents a great deal of evidence relating to the sending and receiving of θεωρίαι, chiefly (but not exclusively) between Athens, Delos, and Delphi, and he argues that panhellenic sanctuaries were ‘zone[s] of competing discourses’ (69) where local history and identity were stressed alongside cultural and religious similarities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that ‘song-dance’ performed abroad was designed to give a stronger than usual impression of political unity and coherence. This is suggested by (inter alia) a passage of Xenophon (Mem. 3.1.2) which Rutherford takes as his starting-point, but (as Rutherford admits) the scarcity of evidence makes it difficult to say much more with any confidence.

Shortage of evidence also dogs Paola Ceccarelli’s (91-117) study of the πυρρίχη in Athens. What exactly was this dance? Who danced? And at what occasions was it performed? There is some evidence to show that the πυρρίχη was (sometimes but not invariably) associated with Athena (and perhaps Dionysus), and that it featured in the Panathenaea and the Tauropolia (and perhaps the Apatouria). Thus it seems likely that this dance could have plural meanings in different contexts (92). Ceccarelli does a great deal with her intractable material, but overall one is left with a sense of inconclusiveness. Ultimately, it is hard to be convinced by her statement that ‘what seems to link all the contexts we have examined is (re)integration’ (115-6): this strikes one as a rather vague, ‘catch-all’ phrase, which could have been defined or clarified at a little more length.

Eva Stehle (121-55) examines choral prayers in Greek tragedy, taking as her starting-point the observation that drama does not seem to represent rituals either realistically or for their own sake (122). All rituals, Stehle argues, are either ‘euphemic’ (addressed to gods in prayer or praise) or ‘aischrologic’ (involving uninhibited speech); she claims that tragedy evokes but at the same time violates euphemic ritual, in order to create a ‘metaritual perspective’ (151). What distinguishes Stehle’s approach is that she pays close attention to both verbal and non-verbal aspects of ritual and performance, and that she attempts (however tentatively) to consider the attitudes of the participants and audience. Though her view that ritual is subordinate to the themes of drama (149) may not please everyone, her theory does seem plausible. Nevertheless, it rests on a large degree of unprovable hypothesis, and, this being so, her line of argument sometimes seems unjustifiably dogmatic (e.g. ‘must be …’, ‘must have been …’, 129, 136, 152, etc.). In addition, I remain to be convinced that the description of all ritual as either ‘euphemic’ or ‘aischrologic’ is very helpful.

Claude Calame’s essay (157-84) ponders the question of the choral ‘voice’ in Aristophanic comedy, asking whose voice is heard (poet? chorus? actors? characters?) and to what extent the chorus’ dramatic or mimetic role constitutes an actual Dionysiac act. Strikingly, he concentrates on the exodoi (rather than, as most scholars, on the parabaseis). Like many of the essays, Calame’s ambitious attempt to reconstruct the ‘big picture’ from small scraps of evidence relies heavily on guesswork. Whether or not his conclusions are correct, this is a rich and subtle analysis, which focuses closely on the formal aspects and linguistic register of the lyric poetry as well as examining its context and content in a general sense.

Several of the essays are concerned with the so-called ‘New Music’ which began to develop in the late fifth century and which was associated with Euripides and Timotheus (among others). The first such essay, Andrew Barker’s imaginative reading of Birds (185-204), argues that Aristophanes in that play set out to criticize ‘New Music’ on the grounds of its ‘motley’ nature and its ‘indiscriminate vulgarity’ (199). Barker focuses on the Nightingale and the type of music which she is said to perform, arguing that she represents ‘New Music’ and as such is a figure of ridicule. Interestingly, he suggests that the part of the Nightingale was actually played by the company’s regular aulete — and thus that Aristophanes wrote deliberately bad music for his play satirizing bad music. Once again, this is an unprovable hypothesis (warning-bells begin to sound as one reads the words ‘if I were producing the Birds, that is certainly how I would do it’, 203), but it is an attractive suggestion; and in fact Barker goes on to justify his suggestion by reference to contemporary Greek precedents and audience expectations.

Eric Csapo (207-48) deals with the musical ‘revolution’ in fifth-century Athens in a broader sense by offering a detailed descriptive survey of ‘New Music’ as well as a synthesis of ancient critical responses to it (including, notably, Plato and Aristotle). As Csapo shows, the growth of professionalism in musical performance led to an increased desire for novelty among audiences. It emerges that ‘New Music’, as well as being radically inventive in a technical sense, was perceived as being controversial in a political sense — a symptom, indeed, of democratic degeneracy. For Plato and other conservative critics, the debased Athenian music became the antithesis of the more traditional music performed at Sparta (with its overtones of eutaxia and eukosmia).

The associations which existed in ancient thought between musical performance and political (dis-) order are explored further by Robert Wallace (249-67) and Peter Wilson (269-306). Wallace examines the shady career of Damon of Oa, the fifth-century music theorist and adviser to Pericles, who was ostracized ca. 443/2 B.C. But was his ostracism due to his music or his politics? Wallace argues that it was a mixture of both. Though it is hard to ascertain what Damon actually did or thought, he seems to have taught that music could shape ethical or political behaviour; perhaps, then, his influence on Pericles was seen as particularly dangerous by the Athenians (who, according to Wallace, mistrusted innovations in general). The connection between music, politics and ethical philosophy is explored further in Wilson’s essay on ‘Athenian strings’ (which ties in very neatly with Csapo’s earlier piece). Wilson argues that we can read Plato and other ancient critics as drawing a broad ideological distinction between string music (traditional, conservative, ‘Apollonian’) and aulos music (‘New’, democratic, ‘Dionysiac’), and that this distinction reflects actual fifth-century practice. His essay ends with a discussion of Timotheus’ Persians (304-6) which interprets that work, a kitharodic nome, as an extraordinary mixture of conservative and ‘New’ influences. Wilson’s argument is persuasive and judicious, although (as he himself acknowledges, p.273) some readers may see his identification of ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysiac’ essences as a ‘reductive polarization’ after the manner of Nietzsche.

Andrew Ford’s piece (309-36) is a re-examination of the eighth book of Aristotle’s Politics,which focuses on the role of μουσική in education by translating the word specifically as ‘music’. What follows is an attempt to clarify Aristotle’s argument in the light of this translation (in particular, by leaving the words out of music and concentrating on its tunes and rhythms). According to Ford, music (proper) belongs within the leisure time of the educated man; but it is not in the highest class of human activity — its purpose is ‘to drive out care rather than to communicate deeper truths and values’ (336). Along the way Ford discusses the difficulties in determining how far, and in what sense, music is a form of mimesis for Aristotle (an old problem, familiar from the Poetics also); this leads to an important textual discussion of Politics 1340a18-21.

Victoria Wohl’s (337-63) exceptionally entertaining contribution is concerned with the classical symposium (and, in particular, Xenophon’s Symposium), at which a number of different activities took place, including dancing, conversation, music, philosophy, education, and erotic love. How, asks Wohl, were these activities related to one another? How was dancing connected to teaching in Xenophon’s mind? And ‘what is the difference between a dancing Sokrates and a philosophizing dance teacher?’ (363). Like many of the other contributors to this volume, Wohl’s characteristic mode is interrogative: she prefers to pose questions rather than to provide definitive answers, to identify connections between ideas rather than to spell out the exact meaning of these connections. However that might be, there is plenty of food for thought here, and a great deal of interesting and unusual information (I especially enjoyed the discussion of Socrates’ comparison of music to smells at Symp. 2.3-4).

In the final essay (365-89), Penelope Murray turns her attention to the Muses themselves, examining the presence (or absence) of the Muses in various forms of intellectual and creative activity (including poetry, history, rhetoric and philosophy). This piece is a characteristically elegant and insightful addition to the author’s previous work on Muse-related subjects. The most interesting new areas of discussion are the problematic spheres of rhetoric (why was there never a Muse of rhetoric?) and philosophy (what did Plato really think of the Muses?). Murray’s conclusion — that Greek cultural values were articulated through μουσική, and that the Muses, like other gods, ‘represent ways of structuring human experience’ (389) — is an entirely appropriate way of summing up her study and the book as a whole.

One leaves this book more than ever persuaded that μουσική is a complex and multifarious entity which is (however one might define it) ubiquitous in Athenian life. All of these scholars do a remarkable job of reconstructing ancient culture from disparate and intractable evidence; all of them make suggestive connections between different areas of activity. Sometimes one feels that the exact nature or meaning of these connections could be spelled out a little more: concepts such as (for instance) ‘a wider, shifting pattern of associations’ (29), or ‘dynamic interplay’ (32), are more commonly encountered here than a clear sense of the influence of one thing on another. Naturally, one does not invariably share the confidence of the authors that their approach is the best, or only, one. Occasionally one feels that the connections between ideas are more intuitive than rational. But the collective contribution, and conceptual range, of this type of work is substantial and profoundly eye-opening.

The volume has been well edited and produced. A particular strength is that most of the essays refer (in the main text or the footnotes) to other essays in the collection. This is not only helpful for the reader, in that it facilitates comparison and cross-reference, but it also gives a real sense of coherence and mutual engagement among the various contributors. (The volume is the product of a successful Warwick colloquium held in 1999.) The addition of an index locorum would have made the book even better. Copy-editing has been careful: the only mistake I spotted was ‘Neitzschean’ (a word easily mistyped!) on p.273. Nevertheless, it is a shame to note that the typesetting of Greek words is execrably poor — one expects better of an expensive volume published by a University Press.


1. Notable recent scholarship includes: D. Boedeker and K. Raaflaub (eds.), Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (Harvard 1998), S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge 1999), E. Csapo and M. Miller (eds.), Poetry, Theory, Praxis: The Social Life of Myth, Word and Image in Ancient Greece (Oxford 2003).