Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Pantomime Musical Accompaniment

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 23: Apollo with kithara, painting on plaster from the Scalae Caci on the Palatine Hill, First Century CE. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, public domain.

Pantomime Musical Accompaniment

The pantomime not only detached the voice of the narrative from the dancer but subordinated the voice to the movement. The interpellator took his cues from the movement, and thus conveyed the impression that language was a response to action rather than a cause of it. The relation of music to the performance reinforced this subordination of aural components to visual. Lucian makes almost no reference to music in his comments on the dance. In the Roman world, musicians do not appear to have achieved the star status of pantomimes. The Romans absorbed the musical theories and practices of the Greeks, but unlike the Greeks, they did not ascribe a cosmic significance to music or treat the mathematical basis of Greek music theory as the mystical manifestation of a divine power. As Behn (1954: 126) observed: Roman music “found its fulfillment as the servant of an unconcealed materialism, through sensuous carousals,” and through practical applications for the military and various public ceremonies. This attitude, however, does not mean that music was not important to the Romans, nor that they introduced no interesting innovations. They incorporated musical influences from the cultures they encountered, and a frequent complaint against Roman music was that it contaminated the civilization with foreign notions of beauty and pleasure. Etruscan musical traditions, which were only partially indebted to Greek traditions, played a major role in shaping Roman musical aesthetics. And when Rome annexed Egypt in the first century BCE, and the pantomime along with the Isis cult found an enthusiastic reception in Italy, Egyptian musical ideas began to penetrate Roman music culture, although this penetration occurred only to the extent that Egyptian musical ideas fit in with other Roman musical tastes and did not replace them.  

The Greek musical practices that the Romans appropriated owed much to Near Eastern musical traditions dating back to the Babylonians and Sumerians. However, Greek music evolved in relation to complex theories of music that were a unique consequence of the Greek inclination to build comprehensive philosophical systems. The Greeks organized musical compositions according to a system of “modes”—or, more precisely, according to several modal systems. Modes apparently derived from the tuning of strings on the chief instruments of musical production, the lyre and the cithara (Gombosi 1939: 33-77). But some scholars have argued that the modal system developed from singing epic poetry and from an intimate connection between vocal performance and musical properties within the Greek language (see Anderson 1994: 84-112; Landels 1999: 110-129). However, the tones produced on an instrument are more likely to achieve a condition of “absolute” purity than the voice and thus provide more convincing evidence to justify a system of tonal relations. The lyre was of very ancient origin, the Babylonians having played as far back as 1800 BC, while the cithara was most likely of Greek invention. Visual representations show lyres containing from three to eleven or twelve strings of equal length but tuned to different notes in a descending scale conforming to a particular mode (Gombosi 1939: 48-73 provides the most complete catalogue of the visual representations). Most representations show six or seven strings, which is sufficient to encompass an octave. The intervals between tones constitute a scale, but the tones are not fixed—they can be changed to produce a different pattern of intervals called a mode. The Greeks employed several modes, whereas modern Western music relies largely on two modes, the major and the minor of a single diatonic system. How the Greek modes operated is not altogether clear, partly because of confusion generated by the unstable representation of the number of strings on the lyre and cithara. Only a few scraps of Greek notated music are extant, and no examples of Roman music notation have survived. So scholars depend on ancient writings about music for clarification, although Greek remained the language for technical and theoretical discourse on the subject. Plato described some modes in relation to their effect on listeners, as did Aristotle. Aristotle’s student Aristoxenos, writing in the late fourth century BCE, composed an extensive treatise on music, of which three books have survived. A second century CE writer, Claudius Ptolemy, composed a densely technical Harmonics that linked Greek music theory to zodiacal codes. In most likely the early third century CE, another commentator, Aristides Quintilianus, complaining about the “disgrace” into which learning about music had fallen, wrote a book that attempted to revive respect for Greek music theory, in which precise, mathematical proportioning of sound reveals the “incorporeal beginning of the soul” and manifests the movement of astral bodies and zodiacal energies (Aristides Quintilianus 1983: 72, 195). But even earlier, in a first century CE essay on music ascribed to Plutarch, the author explained Greek music theory, with extensive reference to Aristoxenos, in an effort to reclaim a tradition that, under the Romans, had supposedly succumbed to decadent practices shaped, as Plato had feared, by the voluptuous pleasures of the theater. But this essay is of further importance precisely because it acknowledges a substantial tension between musical practice, as the author observes it, and music theory as Greek philosophers several centuries before desired music to follow. At any rate, Greek music theory dominated the tonal organization of music in Roman civilization throughout the time in which the pantomime flourished. Nevertheless, the theory, which remained rooted in Pythagorean mathematical idealism, described “systems” of tonal relations that sought to manifest an idealized cosmic harmony that, as a series of mathematical calculations, was often quite detached from the actual sound of music in the ancient world. “Pythagoras, that grave philosopher, rejected the judging of music by the senses, affirming that the virtue of music could be appreciated only by the intellect” (Plutarch 1874 I: 130). The Greek music theory writings are therefore not entirely reliable in explaining ancient music practice. Moreover, because these writings inevitably drift into bewildering technical complexities, they are subject to equally convoluted wrangling among scholars over meaning or implication. 

Aristoxenos used the term “tetrachord” to describe a fundamental set of three intervals between four tones or semi-tones, with the sum of the intervals adding up to a fourth, so that four strings on a lyre might be tuned to d, e, f, and g, although the Greeks apparently assigned separate letters to every note rather than identify them as the same wave length at a different frequency, and what they called “low,” we regard as “high” (Landels 1999: 88). But the player can retune the lyre to produce a different set of notes, as long as they total a fourth between them. By adding strings, a player can include another tetrachord in descending tones. A “conjunction” of tetrachords occurs when the lowest note of the higher tetrachord is the highest note of the lower tetrachord. Tetrachords operate in “disjunction” when an interval separates one tetrachord from another to produce a complete octave. The Greeks combined three, four, or five conjunct and disjunct tetrachords into “systems” for regulating relations between conjunction and disjunction. The Lesser Perfect System consists of three tetrachords, while the Greater Perfect System uses four, and the Greater Perfect Non-modulating System contains five. Each system is divided into four sections that identify the notes within a spectrum: “the highest” (hypaton), “the middle” (meson), “the conjunctive” (synhemmenon), and “the excessive” or additional (hyperbolaion). Both the Greater Perfect and the Greater Perfect Non-modulating Systems include a fifth section, “the disjunctive” (diezeugmenon). The purpose of the Systems is to determine the central tone that links the tetrachords into octaves. Octave structures radiate outward (or higher and lower) from the central tone. Aristoxenos identified thirteen tones, compared with the twelve, including semitones (sharps and flats), in conventional Western music. But the Greeks also appreciated quarter tones, so some commentators discussed structures employing as many as fifteen tones. To determine absolute intervallic relations between tones, it was necessary to apply the Pythagorean method for calculating the ratios of tones to each other, a process that quickly becomes quite complicated and abstruse, as is evident from explanations offered by Landels (1999: 130-135) and Gombosi (1939: 102-107). Most musicians probably did not pay much attention to the theory of intervallic ratios, but Greek acoustic engineers and musical instrument makers found it useful in shaping the material conditions for the production of musical sound. Aristoxenos explained that tetrachords belonged to one of three genera: the diatonic, the chromatic, and the enharmonic. Diatonic tetrachords consist of two whole tones and a semitone and build a scale containing five whole tones and two semitones, just as the diatonic scale functions in music today. Chromatic tetrachords built a fourth out of three semitones and whole tone; this genus was favored for the production of strongly emotional or intensely “sweet” music. The enharmonic tetrachord combined two quarter tones with two whole tones.

Aristoxenos and his disciples, as well as the Pseudo-Plutarch treated the enharmonic as the oldest and strongest tetrachord structure, although, as Sachs (1943: 206-207) pointed out, the evidence for microtones in Greek culture is “indeed relatively late,” at the end of the fifth century BCE. But tetrachords built around microtones disappeared from music in the Hellenistic years and did not resurface. Pseudo-Plutarch wrote that “our musicians nowadays have so exploded the most noble of all moods, which the ancients greatly admired for its majesty, that hardly any among them make the least account of enharmonic distances. And so negligent and lazy are they grown, as to believe the enharmonic diesis to be too contemptible to fall under the appreciation of sense, and they therefore exterminate it out of their compositions […]” (Plutarch 1874 I: 130-131). However, even without this genus plenty of complexity remained in the two other genera. Each genus of octave structure, according to Aristoxenos, adopted one of twelve species, which are often referred to as “modes” or “moods”: Hyperlydian, Hyperaeolian, Hyperphrygian, Hyperionian, Hyperdorian, Lydian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Ionian, Dorian, Hypolydian (Mixolydian), Hypoaeolian, Hypophrygian, Hypoionian, andHypodorian (Landels 1999: 99). “It is not fully clear whether these scales evolved from one another or existed side by side from the beginning” (Sachs 1943: 217). But the development of the modes was perhaps the source of greatest controversy for Greek theorists of music, and even in our own time, “we do not have a clear sense of the significance and value in musical theory and practice of the species of octave” (Comotti 1989: 90). The Greeks designated a mode according to the central tone linking the octaves, so that each mode represented a different tone in the scale of thirteen to fifteen tones they employed. But this does not mean that the modes were synonymous with the concept of “keys” in Western music. “We should not forget,” Comotti remarks, “that the basic system of Greek music was not the octave, but the tetrachord” (1989: 91), and, as he reminds his readers, within the tetrachord, the two inner notes of the fourth were “movable” while the outer notes were always fixed. This freedom to adjust the inner notes of the fourth would cause the central note linking the octaves to shift from the tone predicted by the circular structure linking the highest and lowest tones in the scale. The shift would, in a sense, “de-center” the melodic organization of sound and introduce an amplification of strangeness or instability to the composition. This instability of mood urged Plato, who judged all music on the basis of its assumed moral effect, to contend that some modes were dangerous. In The Republic (III, 397), he singled out the oriental Lydian modes and their chromatic variants as especially conducive to “soft,” “lax,” “convivial” or “dirge-like” moods, and in the ideal state, such modes, such “complex scales” and the “curiously harmonized” instruments that use them, would not be permitted and only the “older” and simpler Dorian (diatonic) and Phrygian modes would have a place. In The Golden Ass, the narrator observes that in the performance of the pantomime in Corinth, the flute player blows a “sweet, Lydian” tune (10.32). Plato contended that music possessed special power to forge its “way into the inward places of the soul”; the Lydian modes were dangerous because their chromatic intensification of emotional “color” in sound urged people toward emotions and action that were “lawless,” “frenzied,” or “unduly possessed by a spirit of pleasure” (Laws III; Plato 1926 I: 247). He linked the Lydian modes to the Dionysian religious ecstasies appropriated by the theater, which was responsible for inculcating a “spirit of lawlessness,” with the result that “in place of an aristocracy in music there sprang up a kind of base theatrocracy” (247). 

The complexity of Greek harmony, as the manifestation of an “ethos,” was therefore a fundamental source of the moral controversies attached to the pantomime culture that exploited harmonic innovation, and much of Greek music theory navigated toward pure mathematics detached from actual sound as part of an ideological project to correct the “excesses” that supposedly had corrupted musical practice. In the Platonic view of cultural history, harmonic innovations in music were in large part responsible, not only for the replacement of tragedy by pantomime in the theater, but for spreading an “ethos” that subverted the ambition of the Platonists to construct modes of intellectual discourse that superceded the need for any kind of theater. Plato’s critique may suggest that chromatic harmony somehow caused people to dance in a particular way that was morally dubious, for he did not oppose all dancing. Indeed, he praised the beauty of the pyrrhic step and believed that young people should learn it (Laws II; Plato 1926 II: 29). However, his language does not altogether support a cause-and-effect relation between harmonic innovation and movement style. Music is dangerous, he contended, when it corrupts audiences, who can no longer distinguish good and bad qualities of performance and thus descend into “a liberty that is audacious to excess.” Plato doesn’t say that corrupt music makes the performers dance in a “lawless” manner, and the evidence of the pantomime obviously indicates, rather, that the performers moved in a calculated, disciplined way, albeit often in an improvised mode, and with qualities that were frequently voluptuous and even lascivious. But what makes movement voluptuous or lascivious? Plato’s point is that any movement becomes voluptuous or lascivious when accompanied by particular melodies or modes of music—or, more precisely, by the freedom to juxtapose tones and thus construct complex contrapuntal and polyphonic effects. In his extant writings on music, Aristoxenos did not really discuss how the modes operate as contrapuntal or polyphonic structures, and it is difficult on the basis of available evidence to determine how the Greeks interwove melodic lines or set a melody in tension with an accompanying chordal configuration. It is possible that the Greeks employed slightly different notation systems for voices and instruments (Landels 1999: 221-227), perhaps because they did not treat vocal and instrumental sound as belonging to a completely unified harmonic system—that is, voices and instruments “translate” a purely theoretical tone into slightly different inflections. It is clear, however, that the Greeks never introduced polyphony into choral singing, and no evidence exists to suggest that the Romans violated the mysterious principle that groups of voices should always sing in unison. Yet polyphonic and contrapuntal complexity was inescapable in their music, because of the ways in which they combined instruments with each other, as well as with voices. Curt Sachs (1943: 256-258) seemed to think that an understanding of Asian polyphonic practices might clarify how the Greeks put together different “parts,” a speculation reinforced by Plato’s warning on the dangers of importing “oriental” modes, although it is not altogether evident that in ancient times Asian cultures possessed contrapuntal techniques that were anymore “advanced” than what the Greeks themselves claimed from mythic origins. But Plato indicated the development of contrapuntal complexity when he complained of “the poets” whose “unmusical illegality” led them to create compositions that “mixed dirges with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, and imitated flute-tunes with harp-tunes, and blended every kind of music with every other […]” (Laws III; Plato 1926 I: 247). According to Plato’s logic, as harmonic complexity increased, movement also became more complex, but not because movement had become more intricately synchronized with harmonic elements. On the contrary, harmonic complexity urged movement to become free of musical determinants and to function against a backdrop of sound rather than as proof of music’s power to control and coordinate the body. In other words, pantomimes used music for dramatic effect, with the same sort of relation between movement and sound that prevails in movies, wherein actors shape often very complex movements before the music enters the performance.  

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