BMCR 2018.09.52

The Music of Tragedy: Performance and Imagination in Euripidean Theater

, The Music of Tragedy: Performance and Imagination in Euripidean Theater. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. xiii, 284. ISBN 9780520295902. $95.00.


Full disclosure: I participated in a workshop co-organized by the author and have submitted an essay for an anticipated volume from the workshop that she is co-editing.

Weiss makes a persuasive case that the choruses of Euripides’ late tragedies, often considered to have lost their importance in most of the playwrights’ last works, make significant contributions to the plots and themes of Electra, Trojan Women, Helen, and Iphigenia in Aulis. They do so primarily through their abundant references to musical practice in general and to choral performance ( choreia) in particular. Such references contribute to what Weiss calls “imaginative suggestion”: allusions to other musical performances and to real and metaphorical choruses encourage the audience to associate the chorus itself with those performances and choruses. That association in turn sends messages relevant to the mythos of the plays.

In her introduction, Weiss establishes basic background: the importance of music to tragedy, the tendency of scholars to evaluate Euripides’ late choruses as examples of New Music rather than as integral parts of the plays in which they appear, and the theoretical foundations of her concept of imaginative suggestion: Bruce Smith on the synthesis of imagination and reality in the music of Elizabethan theater,1 Albert Henrichs on “choral self-referentiality”,2 and Anton Bierl on choruses and ritual.3

Chapter 1 reviews imaginative suggestion in Greek choruses before Euripides’ late plays. Weiss sees the origin of the practice in archaic lyric—especially Alcman’s First Partheneion —where spectators are often encouraged to identify choruses with chorus-like groups they describe, such as Muses, Nereids, and dolphins. Choral images like these are rare in Aeschylus, but he does show self-awareness and innovation in his music, notably in the ability of his choruses to cause things to happen ( Choephori, Persae), to enact off-stage events ( Supplices, Agamemnon, Septem) and to express their own actions through their performance ( Edonians). Sophocles also avoids the associations surrounding choruses found in archaic lyric, except at Antigone 1146–52. His choruses also call attention to their own performance, however, notably in their songs of joy, in which they enact the music and dance they describe, providing ironic contrast to the disasters that follow ( Ajax, Trachiniae). Euripides himself makes explicit references to music in Medea, Heracleidae, and Alcestis. The imaginative suggestion of Euripides’ later plays thus builds upon metamusical features of earlier plays but is also an innovation within tragedy, combining the practices of archaic lyric with features of the New Music.

Electra, Weiss notes in chapter 2, is the earliest Euripidean tragedy in which music and dance play a central role. One effect of the play’s attention to choreia is to call attention to the isolation of Electra. Before the chorus enters, she sings her own version of a parodos, focusing on her solitary mourning. Unlike the chorus of Eumenides, Electra ’s chorus does not join in Electra’s lament. Instead, they invite Electra to join them in choral worship of Hera, but she refuses. When the chorus celebrates the death of Aegisthus in song, Electra responds in speech. The joint song of mourning near the end of the play includes no strophic responsion between Electra and the chorus, and the chorus has no role in the final dialogue. Meanwhile, the first and second stasima, often considered irrelevant to the plot, in fact make important thematic contributions. With their allusions to music and choruses, they lead from apparent escapism through ominous irony to explicit condemnation of Clytemnestra and prepare effectively for the ensuing murders. Weiss thus makes a very strong case that the chorus of Electra is far more than an excuse for Euripides to show off his mastery of New Music. I would add that the opening subjects of the first and second stasima—the Greek fleet on its way to Troy and the story of Thyestes and the golden fleece, respectively—make the chorus even more relevant than Weiss acknowledges. Weiss proposes that these choruses begin with escapism and lead gradually to present troubles. In fact, given the strong association between the Greek fleet and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia and between the fleece and the cursed House of Atreus, the chorus’s escapism is ironic and ominous from the very beginning of both songs. The chorus thus follows the practice standard since the Oresteia of drawing attention to the continuing effects of past sins. They begin this Aeschylean approach in their very first spoken words: immediately after the parodos, this chorus (or its leader), like the chorus of Agamemnon and numerous choruses thereafter, blames Helen for Argos’ troubles (213–14).

Electra, then, offers conspicuous choral images in contrast to the protagonist’s refusal to participate in choreia and thus in civic life. In Trojan Women, Weiss argues in chapter 3, choruses and choral imagery paradoxically send a message of choral absence: with the fall of Troy, choreia has vanished. Hecuba and the chorus sing in the parodos of past choruses, drawing a conspicuous contrast with their current state. Cassandra sings a hymenaios, but she is like a maenad rather than a bride, and no chorus participates. The chorus’ reference to “new songs” (512), assumed by Kranz to refer to Euripides’ use of the New Music 4, in fact refers to the only kind of song left to the chorus after they have lost all the rituals of their city: lament. Finally, as the chorus leaves, “even lament is…abandoned as the women depart, so that the play ends on a bizarre and devastatingly bleak note of silence” (139). This chapter is especially strong, a welcome explanation of why this play, with its unusually static plot, manages to be so dramatically effective.

If Electra refuses to participate in choreia and Hecuba has no true choreia, Helen is, Weiss argues, the quintessential chorus leader, but she abandons her chorus in the course of Helen, as the play’s choreia moves from lamentation to celebration. Numerous musical and choral images throughout the play’s choruses (the nightingale, Sirens, a syrinx-playing crane, Nereids) help to ground its unusual plot in traditional choral genres like the the partheneion. Even the second stasimon, with its extensive excursus on the Great Mother’s search for her daughter, has a direct bearing on the plot, as the chorus admonishes Helen to move away from lamentation. As a whole, this is Weiss’s weakest chapter. Weiss never explains sufficiently just why Helen’s position as a chorus leader is so important in a play so closely centered on a deception plot that scarcely involves the chorus, and some of the connections Weiss makes between the chorus’s words and the plot seem strained. As in the other chapters, however, Weiss consistently offers insightful close readings of individual passages. Especially useful is her assessment of what she calls the “deserted chorus,” not addressed in Helen’s laments at 625ff., then silent for a remarkable 600 lines.

Iphigenia at Aulis, Weiss notes, moves from choreia to monody. The play includes a remarkable amount of choral song, but in the last scenes Iphigenia takes over the chorus’s role as primary singer. The long discourse on the Greek army in the parodos is not just song for its own sake but provides a crucial backdrop for the play and establishes the chorus as spectators, leading to the powerful moment when they turn their gaze to Iphigenia at the end of the play. Later the chorus uses musical imagery to draw bucolic contrasts with the play’s current brutality, as they sing of Paris playing the syrinx before his famous judgment (first stasimon) and of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (third stasimon). Both apparent musical escapes, however, are ominous and ironic: Paris’ judgment and his winning of Helen will lead ultimately to Iphigenia’s death, and the elaborately musical hymenaios celebrating the wedding of Peleus and Thetis calls attention to the fact that Iphigenia will have no hymenaios. In this play from the end of his career, Weiss argues, Euripides combines most effectively the innovations of the New Music with traditional elements of Greek choral imagery. I would add that, yet again, a further aspect of Euripides’ traditionalism here is his use of the chorus to introduce mythical background to current disasters.

Assessing Euripides’ musical innovations in her conclusion, Weiss notes the unique ways in which the choruses of tragedy could engage Athenian spectators, many of whom had themselves participated in choreia. The “hypermimetic” nature of the choruses in these plays, shared by the choruses of Timotheus and other practitioners of the New Music, would trigger the audience’s own experiences in choruses, through what Weiss, drawing on contemporary dance theory, calls “kinaesthetic empathy.” Particularly powerful would be the moments of discomfort when the audience realizes that the pleasure it draws through its identification with the chorus jars with the horrors of the plot.

In a coda to her conclusion, Weiss considers Bacchae. Here the chorus is so closely aligned with Dionysus and the Dionysian that the “doubleness” of the other late plays, in which the audience is encouraged to ponder the chorus both as a character in the play and as a chorus of Athenians onstage, is absent. Nevertheless, as they recreate the kind of dithyrambic performance in which many members of the audience would have participated, they draw the audience in and implicate them in the downfall of Pentheus. This approach, Weiss argues, follows an older, Aeschylean model of tragedy. The juxtaposition of the posthumous plays Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis thus reveals the flexibility with which Euripides approached his late choruses.

Weiss’s concept of imaginative suggestion serves her well, and it will be a useful tool for future analyses of both choral and individual song in Greece and Rome. Such future studies will want to refine some just how the concept works. Most of the examples of imaginative suggestion Weiss envisions—groups like Nereids as analogies for the chorus on stage, for example, and circular movements represented by the chorus’ own movements—are thoroughly persuasive. Elsewhere, though, she stretches imaginative suggestion in more daring ways that could use some more theorizing. I wonder, for example, why choral descriptions of travel would, as Weiss suggests, “encourage an associational relationship between the choreuts’ words and bodily movements” (56).

Also effective is Weiss’s method of gleaning from musical allusions hints at actual musical practice. Weiss’s thoughts about the choruses’ numerous references to instrumental music are particularly intriguing. Often, she argues persuasively, such references allude to the auletes, playing and present in the orchestra. Weiss also has a number of very fine observations about the one aspect of musical performance that our texts reveal explicitly: the rhythmic patterns provided by meter. She notes, for example, the power of moves from anapests to lyrics (116), the reinforcement resolution provides to choral descriptions of running (87), and the potential thematic significance of metrical repetition between stasima (180). A wider and more systematic look at metrical patterns could enrich Weiss’s analyses even further.

Weiss thus offers us a new way of seeing how choruses are central characters in Euripides’ late plays, even when they seem at first glance far removed from what is going on around them. Her work is an excellent example of the current revolution in the study of ancient music, which is refuting definitively the facile assumption that tragedy’s music in unknowable and therefore uninteresting.


1. Smith, B. R., The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. (Chicago, 1999).

2. Henrichs, A., “Why Should I Dance?: Choral Self-Referentiality in Greek Tragedy.” Arion 3(1994–95):56–111.

3. Bierl, Anton, Ritual and Performativity: The Chorus in Old Comedy. Trans. A. Hollmann. (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

4. Kranz, W., Stasimon. Untersuchungen zu Form und Gehalt der griechischen Tragödie. (Berlin, 1933). ​