Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Rhythmic Features of the Accompaniment

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

Rhythmic Features of the Accompaniment

The synchronization of music and movement usually depends on rhythmic, rather than harmonic, organizations of sound. It is apparent, however, that the Greeks subordinated rhythm to harmony, in the sense that the “pulse” of music did not determine its mode of “mood.” How the Greeks even signified rhythmic values remains quite obscure. Most scholarly commentary on Greek rhythmic practice arises out of protracted discussion of the metric system governing the composition of poetry, with probably the most monumental contribution in this direction coming from the writings of Rudolf Westphal (1826-1892), especially in his immense commentary on Aristoxenos, completed between 1883 and 1893. An assumption governing discourse on Greek rhythmic practice is that music emerges from literary language by functioning as a system for controlling the meaning and emotional resonance of words through patterns of syllabic accent and tonality. Because much of Aristoxenos’s writing on rhythm was not preserved, Westphal relied on references to Aristoxenos’s thinking in the writings of other ancients, primarily Aristides Quintilian, who wrote, according to his editor, Thomas Mathieson, “sometime in the late third or early fourth century A.D.,” although other scholars claim he wrote in the early third century (Aristides Quintilian 1983: 14). Aristides’ thinking is at points so densely technical that it requires more than a little patience to read him. Consider this paragraph on rhythm:

There are also other mixed rhythms, six in number: cretic, which is composed of two trochee thesis [downbeat] and a trochee arsis [upbeat]; iambic dactyl, which is composed of a iamb thesis and a iamb arsis; trochaic bacchic dactyl, which consists of a trochee thesis and a iamb arsis; iambic bacchic dactyl, which is configured contrariwise to the aforesaid rhythm; iambic chroeic dactyl (it accepts one of the dactyls in the thesis and one in the arsis); and trochoid choreic dactyl, compounded analogously with the aforesaid rhythm. “Cretic” derived its name from that people; the rest have their names from the aforesaid feet (Aristides 1983: 100). 

His discussion of music is intensely abstract and only rarely does he make even the slightest reference to actual performance and none to any actual composition. It is very doubtful that musicians in the Roman Empire paid much attention to the theoretical principles he described, and this indifference was a motive for writing the treatise. In his only reference to the pantomime, he criticizes Cicero for condemning music as immoral while praising “the dancer” Roscius, “who at that time displayed himself with rhythms alone and these ignoble and inferior” (124). Nevertheless, Aristides perceived rhythm as the movement of music and the body (orchestra), and his remarks on the subject provide some insight into how the pantomime deployed music.

            Rhythm, according to Aristides, refers to the interval of time between tones; melody is a calculated organization of these intervals that “moves the heart” (94). The smallest unit of time is called the “protos,” which may also be called the point or pose. The point, so to speak, generates energy that “moves” in mathematical proportions or ratios of tones. Arsisis an upward movement of the body and thesis is a downward movement. A rhythm establishes a repetitive relation between upbeats and downbeats. Specific temporal values or durations ascribed to upbeats and downbeats result from dividing a tone into “feet” “considered to have two (equal or unequal) phases each—not time units—and classified in four groups according to whether the ratio of length of the two phases was 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, or 4:3” (Sachs 1943: 260). These ratios are “related to intervallic sound by nature” (Aristides 1983: 95). The system for dividing tones into upbeats and downbeats derives from the metric patterning of accents imposed upon the speaking of poetic language. Music (as song) is assumed to have emerged from the exaggeration or intensification of tonal and rhythmic properties embedded in consonants, syllables, words, and sentences, although, as Landels (1999: 111-112) observes, in poetry, the Greeks imposed a metric pattern on the words rather than selected words that “naturally” accommodated the pattern. The metric system of upbeats and downbeats merges into the ratio system of phases (feet), to allow for numerous combinations of feet. Even if one includes pitch values in them, metric patterns do not produce melodies unless they are unstable, combined with other patterns that preclude the idea of “translating” upbeats and downbeats into notes. Nineteenth century commentators on Greek music, like Westphal, attempted such translations to show how the civilized orderliness of modern Western music has its origin or foundation in ancient musical practice. But the Greeks, subordinating rhythm to melody, treated rhythm as a mathematical combination of temporal intervals rather than as the controlling “pulse” of a musical composition. This means that Greek music and literature were not as closely aligned as some commentators have asserted. It also means that Greek rhythms were more unstable or richer than the study of prosody would indicate. Even if one assumes the dubious task of translating the downbeat as equivalent to a quarter note and the upbeat as equivalent to half a downbeat or an eighth note, as so many commentators do to “simplify” the relation between metric pattern and rhythm, the rhythms that emerge from poetic language are quite diverse and often unusual in Western music: 9/8 or 12/8 or 5/8 or even 11/8 (tetrapodie) rhythms were not as strange to the Greeks as they are to Western ears. But John Landels insists that it is necessary “to abandon the concept of lines of verse. The more elaborate structures of Greek song consisted not of regular repeated lines, but of metrical units of varying length, grouped together to form stanzas” (1999: 123). In other words, rhythmic structure shifted to accommodate melodic invention motivated by texts whose metric patterns were also unstable. Moreover, the translation of metric patterns into musical notation does not take into account other important aspects of rhythm, such as rests, triplets, pedal points, or tempos, although Aristides alluded to them without explaining their significance (1983: 101-102). He declared that rhythmic “modulations arise in twelve ways,” but he named only eight and did not discuss any of them, even in some vague relation to his contention that “the best rhythmic composition is that productive of virtue; the worst, that of evil” (1983: 102). But his reluctance to explore rhythmic modulation suggests that the music of his time pursued rhythmic practices that were too complex to function as manifestations of a divine, geometrically-ordered cosmology in which movement contains two “species”: straight line or orbit (1983: 176). 

            The diversity of rhythmic meters hardly means that the ancients were enthusiastic producers of “danceable” music. On the contrary, complexity of “rhythmic modulation” favors “singability” over “danceability.” The pantomime culture most likely encouraged the production of tunes audiences could hum and associate with the emotional ambience of a particular star or company. Music composed to synchronize the dancer’s body with an external “pulse” was probably not a priority, insofar as pantomimic virtuosity was not synonymous with the display of superior skill at synchronization. Music accompanied the dance in the way that it accompanied singing, which could even mean that the rhythm of the accompanying music was different from the rhythm of the singer or dancer or that, in any case, the dancer could still feel comfortable moving to a melody in such “awkward” meters as 7/4 or 9/8. For dramatic effect, the pantomime could move slowly while the music moved quickly, and vice versa. If synchronization occurred, most likely it was because the musicians followed the dancer, the star, producing particular tones to coincide with movements when the dancer decided to make them. As a result, the rhythmic structure of the music could become even more complex than an “awkward” meter. In any case, how would synchronization work? In conventional dance practice, upbeats lift the body and downbeats bring the foot to the ground. But if the dancer is narrating, not one but several mythic scenes in succession, conventional synchronization of the body with upbeats and downbeats, no matter what the rhythmic meter, merely diminishes dramatic power and at best confines the performance to a predictable, if not mechanical, display of acrobatic agility. The combination of acting with dancing requires a more complex relation to music.

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