BMCR 2020.09.16

Poeti in Agone: Competizioni poetiche e musicali nella Grecia antica

, , , Poeti in Agone: Competizioni poetiche e musicali nella Grecia antica. Giornale Italiano di Filologia - Bibliotheca (GIFBIB 18). Turnhout: Brepols, 2017. 636 p.. ISBN9782503576183 €115,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume constitutes a natural continuation of these authors’ previous studies of poetic and musical activity in Ancient Greece. The work sheds particular light on the close interaction and mutual dependence of ritual, musical, social and poetic factors from the early Archaic up until the late Roman period.[1] All in all, the twenty-five studies, written mostly in Italian (with one in German, one in English, and one in Spanish), focus on poetry and music in ancient Greek competitions, and address the topic both from a synchronic and diachronic point of view.

The book contains a preface and a conclusion and is divided into seven sections, the lengthiest containing seven essays, the shortest just one. The first and lengthiest section deals with various poetic genres in Archaic and Classical Greece (seven essays). The second gathers four contributions on the Archaic and Classical rhapsodic and lyric tradition. The third considers formal aspects of the contest (two essays). The fourth is, for the most part, dedicated to epigraphic evidence from Hellenistic Delphi. The fifth is titled “Theoretic reflection on performances from the Classical age to Roman times” and comprises four essays. The sixth contains three essays and deals with the reception of Greek poetry and music in painting (Böcklin) and music (Wagner and Cherubini). The final section discusses a database of Greek musical contests, the compilation of which is in progress.

Inevitably for such an ambitious collection, not all the essays are of equal quality or interest, and some of the topics are outside my expertise. Thus for reasons of space only a few contributions will be discussed here, with apologies to others that are omitted.

Claude Calame discusses one ritual dimension of Attic tragedy. The performance of melic poetry and musical performance in the context of mousikos agon, which is inserted in a long cultic sequence. The ritual dimension is to be found in the songs of the chorus, which take on various forms such as paian, hymenaion, hymn, and threnos. Bernhard Zimmermann inquires into the various functions of choral performance and argues that the problematic character of dramatic choruses is a consequence of the origin of dramatic forms in choral lyric. The role of the chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone and Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes are considered as case studies.

Liana Lomiento comments on the text of the Vita Sophoclis 23, where it is reported that Sophocles introduced the Phrygian melody into his songs, mixing it with the dithyrambic style. The so-called ‘New Music’ songs in Sophocles’ plays are especially noteworthy, in what would seem to be an important precursor to Euripidean experimentalism and to the theatrical character of the ‘New-Dithyrambic’ poetry.

Maria Grazia Fileni discusses the initial song prosodion which accompanied the transference of the sacrificial victims towards the altar, emphasizing some characteristics regarding structures, subjects, performing manners and the different contexts of this song. The characteristics include the religious one, where the prosodion competition was often outstanding, and the literary one, where the prosodion crosses with other lyric genres and shares metrical-rhythmic patterns and themes. Furthermore, a rereading of the parodos of Aristophanes’ Frogs is proposed to emphasize mimetic or parodic features of the prosodic parts, their relation with the context and their dramaturgic function.

Giampaolo Galvani analyses how Euripides used metrical and rhythmical components to evoke the hymenaic genre. Galvani argues that metric-rhythmic components were used in tragedy (Tro. 308-341; Phaeton 227-244; Suppl. 990-1030;Iph. Aul. 1036-1097) in order to evoke a certain lyric genre.

Marco Ercoles considers the poetic contests as a place for debate and analyses the vivid discussion of ‘new music’ in the 2nd half of the 5th cent. and the 1st half 4th cent. BCE (Arist. Rhet. 3, 1409b24-30, Ath. 8, 338a, 352a; Timotheus’ frs. 791, 202-236 and 802; Pl. Leg. 3, 700b-701a).

Finally, in the longest paper of the volume, John C. Franklin surveys all the evidence that we possess relating to the life and career of the other representative of this ‘new music’, Cinesias. He also examines past scholarly commentary, adding original observations and suggestions. Franklin pays special attention to the ‘sophistic’ qualities of the new dithyramb. He offers a more coherent and interesting image of Cinesias than that which has been achieved previously.

The second section discusses early lyric and rhapsodic agons. Luca Bettarini examines three auletes—Babys, Cicones, and Codalus—and an Ionian (auletic or aulodic?) nomos performed by Mimnermus on the flute, all mentioned by Hipponax. Marialuigia Di Marzio analyses Pindar fr. 94b Maehler, a parthenion performed by a group of girls at the daphnephoric procession at the sanctuary of Ismenius Apollo. The relationship between the Siren’s image and the ‘civil’ plot of the poem referring to the Battle of Coronea is elaborated upon. Adelaide Fongoni discusses Dionyisus Chalcus’ sympotic elegy and argues that it has been influenced by the ‘new music’.

Alessandra Amatori further explores the fragments of Carneonikae by Hellanicus of Lesbus on a Spartan musical contest and its winners, especially three fragments concerning two 7th century BCE Lesbian musicians, Terpander and Arion. Paola Angeli Bernardini examines chronologically the presence of athletic contests, including musical competitions, in the cities of the Greek world from Archaic up until Hellenistic times. A connection between war, sport, and communal memory is posited.

Three contributions on epigraphic evidence from Hellenistic Delphi follow. Maria Elena Della Bona writes on the musical Pythia through a prosopography of the pythionikai along with information concerning the winners’ provenance and their chronological sequence. On the basis of epigraphic evidence and by comparison with data from the later festivals, Alessandra Manieri discusses different opinions regarding characteristics and performance of the choirs in the Amphiktionic Soteria at Delphi. Particularly illuminating is her discussion of technical vocabulary of choral competitions of the Hellenistic period. Angela Cinalli highlights the favourite routes of the ‘wandering poets’, which included loci Apollinei Delphi, Delos, and sometimes Athens. Two poets – Satyros from Samos (fl. 200-175 BCE, FD III 3, 128), and Polygnota from Thebes (86 BCE, FD III 3, 249) arrived in Delphi to participate in the agones.

Two further essays complete this section on epigraphic evidence on the poetic and musical contests. José Antonio Fernandez Delgado and Francisca Pordomingo analyse literary sources such as numerous relevant passages of Plutarch’s Vitae. Plutarch, likely using Hellenistic sources as a basis, contributes valuable information on feasts and contests, poets and performers, poetic texts made for performance and the genres to which they could be ascribed. Flavio Massaro’s presentation of an online database (in progress) of the musical contests in ancient Greece, along with a systematic study of the sources for each region, constitutes a significant contribution. When the project is completed and the database is made available to the public, the sources, searchable in various ways, will facilitate the spread of the knowledge of an extensive documentation which is for the most part epigraphic.

Massimo Raffa’s discussion of pseudo-Aristotelian Problems (ch. 19 on harmony and audience-oriented criticism) is enlightening. This is a collection which was gradually assembled by the peripatetic school and reached its final form anywhere between the third century BCE to the 6th century CE. Raffa examines the different aspects of performance taken into account by the anonymous compiler, and organises them according to the fundamental characteristics of sound: volume/intensity, pitch, and timbre. He suggests that part of the material in this section may have originated from the observation of the behaviour and tastes of the judges and the audience at poetical and musical contests. The appendix is useful as it gathers passages from the Problems discussed in the article (Greek with Italian translation).

The last section considers various aspects of later reception of the poetical and musical competitions, which had provided a model in the Western artistic tradition from the Middle Ages up until the nineteenth century and beyond. Biancamaria Brumana discusses the poetic contest in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers’ Contest at Wartburg, containing various levels of competition such as the story of medieval German troubadour, the tale of the Wartburg Song Contest, and the struggle between sacred and profane love. What is more, the costumes (particularly as depicted in forty unpublished sketches) created by artist Charles Bianchini for the Paris edition of the opera in 1895 are displayed and explained, eighteen Bianchini’s images being reproduced. The costumes of singers and their pages are compared with maquettes kept at the Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opera in Paris. Bianchini traces the progression from the initial idea to the final staging.

Elena Liverani analyses the ‘contest’ of the two great soprano divas Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer in their interpretation of Cherubini’s Medea (1797). Portrayal of Medea becomes the field within which the two singers compete. Through the detailed analysis of the score and techniques used by the two divas, Liverani highlights how voice modulation enabled interpretation of different aspects of the same character. The Cherubinian score/text is suitable to their variations, since it was not composed for a tonal language, but for an accentual one. Liverani argues that Gencer studied the ancient texts, whilst Callas let herself be guided by instinct. As a result, Callas gave birth to a divine and heroic Medea, mistress of logos, whilst Gencer managed to impersonate the Medea-mother as a repudiated woman.

The volume is carefully produced, contains meticulous and detailed indices, but cross-references, which in such a collection would be very useful, would have been welcome. Points at which such cross-references would have been helpful include the discussion of the Mnesiepes Inscription by Loscalzo (p. 265) and Zimmermann (p. 33), the ritual with the pharmakos explored in Loscalzo (pp. 269-271) and in Bettarini (pp. 232-233), the inscriptions of the pythionikai analysed by Cinalli (p. 391) and by Della Bona (pp. 331-351).

However, these are trifles. This is a valuable work that makes a significant contribution on various fronts such as literary criticism, history of scholarship, performance studies, reception of ancient myth and music, opening up a whole literature field and an area of ancient intellectual culture to a wider audience, providing new levels of theoretical analysis, new perspectives on the musical and agonistic dimensions of poetry, and on the ways in which this poetry continues to reverberate in modern European culture.

Table of Contents

Antonietta Gostoli: Prefazione, p. 9

Generi poetici e rappresentazioni drammatiche in Atene
Claude Calame, Les concours musicaux des Grandes Dionysies à Athènes : la tragédie attique entre poésie chorale, performance rituelle et acte politique, p. 13
Bernhard Zimmermann, Griechische Chöre zwischen Religion, Politik und Kultur, p. 27
Liana Lomiento, Ditirambo e tragedia sofoclea, p. 47
Maria Grazia Fileni, Il prosodio tra cerimonie religiose, agoni musicali e rappresentazioni teatrali, p. 69
Giampaolo Galvani, Presenza di generi lirico-corali nella tragedia greca: l’imeneo, p. 103
Marco Ercoles, Nuova Musica e agoni poetici. Il dibattito sulla musica nell’Atene classica, p. 131
John C. Franklin, Skatabasis. The Rise and Fall of Kinesias, p. 163

Agonistica lirica e rapsodica
Luca Bettarini, Testimonianze di auletica in Ipponatte, p. 225
Marialuigia Di Marzio, Il canto delle sirene nel carme dafneforico di Pind. fr. 94b Maehler, p. 237
Donato Loscalzo, Picchiare il poeta in agoni giambici, p. 261
Adelaide Fongoni, «Marinai del simposio e rematori di coppe» (Dionys. Chalc. fr. 5, 2 Gent.-Pr.). L’elegia simposiale nell’Atene di V-IV secolo a.C., p. 279

Fondare un agone musicale
Alessandra Amatori, Fondare un agone musicale: Terpandro e Arione alle Carnee. I Karneonikai di Ellanico di Lesbo, p. 301
Paola Angeli Bernardini, Commemorare e celebrare un evento bellico con l’istituzione di agoni sportivi e musicali, p. 315

Uno sguardo su Delfi
Maria Elena Della Bona, Pythionikai a Delfi: virtù e onori, p. 331
Alessandra Manieri, Gare corali ai Soteria di Delfi, p. 357
Angela Cinalli, Storie di ‘poeti vaganti’ a Delfi: quando il viaggio nasconde un imprevisto, p. 385

Riflessione teorica sulle performances dall’età classica all’età romana
Massimo Raffa, Perché mi piace ciò che mi piace? La formazione del giudizio sulla performance musicale nella sezione 19 dei Problemi pseudo-aristotelici, p. 413
Francesco Prontera, Riflessioni tardo-ellenistiche sulla musica, la poesia e le origini della storiografia (Str. 1, 2, 3-8), p. 427
Francesca Biondi, Varianti epiche di tradizione orale ed esegesi antica dei poemi omerici, p. 435
José Antonio Fernández Delgado, Francisca Pordomingo, La actividad poético-musical de época helenística en las Vitae de Plutarco, p. 451

Iconografia musicale e ripresa dell’antico
Eleonora Cavallini, La musica degli dèi: figure mitiche di eccellenza musicale nella pittura di Arnold Böcklin, p. 477
Biancamaria Brumana, La tenzone dei cantori nel Tannhäuser di Wagner: schizzi inediti dei costumi per l’allestimento parigino del 1895, p. 505
Elena Liverani, Medea, un canto nei secoli, p. 527

Un database degli agoni musicali
Flavio Massaro, Terpander: per un database degli agoni musicali greci, p. 545
Carmine Catenacci, Poeti in agone. Alcune considerazioni d’insieme, p. 559
“Indice dei passi citati”, “Indice dei nomi”, “Elenco delle illustrazioni”, p. 573


[1] The present book is part of an extensive project; previous publications include: Agoni poetico-musicali nella Grecia antica. Pisa : F. Serra, 2009-2018: 1. Beozia, a cura di A. Manieri, 2009; 2. Pythia di Delfi, a cura di M. E. Della Bona, 2017; 3. Sparta, a cura di F. Massaro, 2018.