Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Sung Accompaniment

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

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Figure 26: “Bacchanale” (1871), by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), projects a Victorian perception of music-making in Imperial Rome.

Sung Accompaniment

The musicians who accompanied the pantomimes were obviously an important aspect of the represented action. But the size, composition, and performance contribution of the musicians remains obscure. Visual evidence indicates that Roman spectators liked seeing the musicians in the same frame as the dancer, unlike in conventional Western theater, ballet, opera, movies, and dance, in which the musicians perform out of sight, in a pit or off stage, or on a recording [Figure 3]. Audiences apparently saw music making as a dramatic action that contributed to the spectacle value of the performance. Different instruments and voices created different dramatic auras, but it is by no means clear what the “standard” musical ensemble for pantomime was, and most likely, for separate pieces within the pantomime program, different instrumentalists and singers combined to provide a variety of musical interludes. 

A chorus was apparently a feature of many pantomime companies, and probably most choruses were entirely female. The sex of the chorus is significant. The chorus of ancient Greek drama was entirely male, because women were forbidden to perform in the theater. Perhaps the idea of female choirs emerged in the Hellenistic theater out of the hetaere culture of Greek brothels and entertainment salons. But it’s also possible that the Romans, who did not forbid women from performing in the theater, encouraged the introduction of female choirs and felt far less inhibition than the Greeks about displaying their desire to hear female voices sing. However, the historian Titus Livius (59 BCE-17 CE), in his History of Rome (7.2), composed 27-9 BCE, asserted that when in 364 BCE the Romans invited the Etruscans to perform a play as a way to urge the gods to alleviate a terrible pestilence, the actors only danced to the music of a flute “in the Tuscan fashion,” and did not speak or sing. It was only afterwards that young Roman men “began to imitate them, exercising their wit on each other in burlesque verses, and suiting their action to their words. This became an established diversion, and was kept up by frequent practice.” Livy pointed out that these young men “chanted satyrical verses quite metrically arranged and adapted to the notes of the flute, and these they accompanied with appropriate movements.” And he explained that it was the actor Livius Andronicus (285-204 BCE) who, at least a hundred years later, “for the first time abandoned the loose satyrical verses and ventured to compose a play with a coherent plot. Like all his contemporaries, he acted in his own plays, and it is said that when he had worn out his voice by repeated recalls he begged leave to place a second player in front of the flutist to sing the monologue while he did the acting, with all the more energy because his voice no longer embarrassed him. Then the practice commenced of the chanter following the movements of the actors, the dialogue alone being left to their voices” (Livius 1912: online). But it is clear from Livius’s account that one should not confuse “the chanter” with a chorus. Hieronymus (St. Jerome), writing in the late fourth century CE, remarked that Pylades in Rome introduced the chorus to pantomime productions in 22 BCE, although it cannot then be supposed that the chorus replaced the solo singer (Hieronymus, Chronicles of Eusebius, 189.3). Wille (1967: 167-168), in examining the fragments of Republican tragic drama, detected traces of choral text in imitation of Greek models, but was unable to determine if they were spoken or sung. In any case, the singing of “virtuoso solo arias” quickly superceded whatever attempts the tragedians made to produce choral songs. From the beginning, the Roman dramatists appear to have assigned the chorus a marginal role, and they amplified the marginality by thinking of singing as above all a solo activity. But the concept of the chorus probably changed with the professionalization of the theater. Even for the Republican dramatists, the chorus never fulfilled the role that Horace, in the Ars poetica, ascribed to it, as the “well-meaning advisor, the passionless mediator, the reliable observer, the friend of justice and peace” (Wille 1967: 168). Livy (7.2) implied that the chorus represented a dubious or stigmatized sector of society when he remarked that, as a result of Livius Andronicus’s innovations, “the young people left the regular acting to the professional players and began to improvise comic verses. These were subsequently known as exodia (after-pieces), and were mostly worked up into the ‘Atellane Plays.’ These farces were of Oscan origin, and were kept by the young men in their own hands; they would not allow them to be polluted by the regular actors. Hence it is a standing rule that those who take part in the Atellanae are not deprived of their civic standing, and serve in the army as being in no way connected with the regular acting” (Livy 1912: online). Unlike Athenian audiences, Roman audiences did not perceive a “communal voice” as rational or reliable. But that does not mean they took no pleasure in choral performance. Rather, the pantomime cultivated a different function for the chorus as a multipurpose ensemble whose identity was mutable and unstable. In his description of the pantomime in Corinth, Apuleius details the actions of a very large ensemble; those who appeared in the pyrrhic procession re-entered as “extras” in the extravagant retinues of Juno, Minerva, and Venus. The pantomime chorus, composed mostly if not entirely of slaves, functioned to perform multiple tasks in relation to the pantomime production as a whole. Before the star pantomime appeared, the chorus might sing a song, then some members might perform a dance, while another member might afterward perform acrobatic stunts. Yet other members might assist in the preparation of theatrical effects. A distinction in status between the musical and choral ensembles is probably irrelevant. Procopius’s account of the Empress Theodora’s days as a member of a pantomime chorus stresses that choral performers assumed duties as prostitutes.  

Choral songs, when they appeared, were popular tunes, hymns, or paeans. The choral interludes that appear in the tragedies (60-65 CE) of Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) or in the Octavia (70 CE) bear almost no resemblance to the use of the chorus in pantomime productions, even though, with their eight or nine foot meters, they convey a strong enough lyrical impulse that Seneca may have considered them songs (“Canite, o pubes inclita, Phoebum!” — Agamemnon, l. 310). Seneca’s choruses are simply too dense with arcane erudition, extravagant descriptions, grandiose philosophizing, and ornamental vocabulary to submit to musical elevation. These monumental overflows of language lack the refrains, the repetitions, and the simple, single-minded emotional focus of a song meant for performance in a theater. Nevertheless, the very complexity of his choruses indicates that Seneca viewed the group or “communal” identity signified by the chorus in a manner that resembled the pantomime perception of the chorus: communal identity was too complex, too mutable, and too saturated with linguistic pyrotechnics to “represent” some larger category of shared social identity or even the community designated by the text. The reason the Romans showed little interest in cultivating the choral tradition of Greek drama is that they saw any category of group identity as too dynamic or unstable to achieve credible representation through a unified, unison voice. A song with an autonomous theme might justify the unison voice, but not some moral crisis capable of reinforcing the uplifting architecture of dramatic narrative. Pantomime choral songs probably functioned to stimulate a mood of bacchanalian revelry, a loosening of inhibition in the audience. Seneca’s choruses, with their interminable Stoic moralizing and panoramic erudition, have the exact opposite effect, but in their exhausting extravagance, they do share with the bacchanalian spirit an affinity for a “community” defined through its excesses.

In his essay on the dance, Lucian (De saltatio23) remarked that “singing combined with dancing does in truth stir the heart-strings, and it is the choicest gift of the gods” (Lucian 1936: 237). This assertion, combined with Titus Livius’s explanation in his history of Rome (7.2) of how Livius Andronicus turned over the speaking of monologues to a singer, suggests that at least sometimes solo songs accompanied the movement of the pantomimes, although further evidence to support this supposition is quite difficult to excavate. Visual evidence of performance includes instrumentalists but not singers, even if one speculates that a lyre player was also a singer. Apuleius does not mention singing in connection with the “Judgment of Paris” pantomime in Corinth. Presumably a song that accompanied a mythic scene contained lyrics explicitly related to the character or action impersonated. But the process of composing a song that is specific to a scene is much more complicated than composing or selecting purely instrumental music to accompany the scene. The composer and pantomime must work closely together to coordinate movement and lyrics, and the pantomime must give up some measure of freedom to determine the movement for the scene. Purely instrumental music allows for greater flexibility than songs to build the star pantomime’s repertoire. The same instrumental piece can be used for different scenes or the same the scene can work with different music. When music follows movement, choreographic improvisation and experimentation is easier. But when the music is sung, spectator perception becomes more strenuously divided between aural and visual tracks, and thus weakens focus on the pantomime’s virtuosity. Moreover, songs more than instrumental compositions depend on their performers to establish their expressive power, and it would not be to the pantomime’s advantage to depend much on a singer’s health to sustain his own appeal. An interpellator rather than a singer was therefore the favored device for injecting language into the scene. 

Nevertheless, both choral and solo singing was apparently a feature of pantomime programs. Hendrik Wagenvoort (1920: 102) cited a Diomedes’ quotation of a fragment of Suetonius that originally “pantomimes and flutists and choruses sang in comedy” and that as a result of competition between them, they separated into different art forms, although it is not clear how competition in comedy urged the performers to drift into tragic modes of performance. Gaston Boissier (1861: 13) interpreted this passage to mean that the actors, who had previously danced during songs, while speaking dialogue without music, confined themselves to excelling at purely pantomimic impersonations, becoming saltare tragoediam; the singers became cantare tragediam, and the flutists became concert artists. Otto Ribbeck (1875: 633-637) somewhat later proposed that Republican tragedy was a combination of song, aria, monologue, and dialogue. He was determined to reconcile the existence of ancient Latin drama fragments, which are all vocal parts, some containing what he regarded as purely sung meters, with Livy’s statement that Livius Andronicus had established a convention of detaching the “singer” from the actor, which, in effect, eliminated the need for drama itself or literary control over theatrical action. If anything, though, his uncertainty about what was sung and who was singing simply indicated that Roman dramatic performance during the Republic underwent a confusing evolution and that the Romans themselves were uncertain, even doubtful, of the power of language or words or voice to reveal the significance of the mythic scene. But Wagenvoort was skeptical of earlier explanations. He proposed instead the appearance of an “intermediate form” of performance, the cantica tragica, which became extinct before the end of the Republic and perhaps functioned to transform tragic drama into a sort of opera. When Nero, however, attempted to revive tragic singing, “the new songs were no longer formed by their connection to the surrounding dialogue […] they not only had the same origin as pantomime, but they also betrayed the same ambition to dissolve the boring tragic action into the most sensational episodes” (1920: 111). But embedded in these speculations is the belief that Roman culture sought some technique to infuse tragic theatrical performance with language or at least voice. Without the word or the voice, some special power was presumed absent from a tragic mode of performance, and language itself seemed to achieve vitality in the theater only in the debased domain of comedy inhabited by the mimes. However, even if one accepts Wagenvoort’s idea of an “intermediate form,” the cantica tragica, this form clearly failed to establish the “special power” of language to generate tragic drama beyond the end of the Republic. Nor was the cantica tragica effective in preventing the dominance of pantomime in the tragic domain at the beginning of the Empire (22 BCE). Nero’s “new songs” for his tragic performances were probably variations on the format for pantomime programs; he was innovative insofar as he sought to display his virtuosity in all the roles offered by an entire program, not just the mythic scenes of the star pantomime. With singing, he could demonstrate his artistry as a musician and poet, as well as an actor. A more plausible explanation is that Roman culture disclosed a deep skepticism toward the power of language to “represent” reality accurately from the beginning of the theater culture in 364 BCE, when the Etruscan dancers somehow persuaded the gods to lift the plague where linguistic appeals had failed. An enduring preoccupation with the body as the truest manifestation of reality motivated and sustained a fascination with pantomimic action that undermined or inhibited faith in language and speech to create “new” or “other” identities within the self. 

Yet singing was a feature of pantomime programs, for the Romans appreciated songs as autonomous, self-contained aesthetic experiences. Wille (1967: 218-220) reviews the evidence of Roman song-art before the time of Catullus (87-54 BCE), whose poems achieved enough popularity as songs that Horace (Satires 1.10.18) condemned the singer Tigellius and the composer Demetrius for the protracted droning they inserted into their adaptations of lyrics by Catullus and Calvos (Wille 1967: 220). In general, musicians in Roman civilization had low social standing, and singers perhaps assumed an even lower position than instrumentalists in the status hierarchy of music culture. The epigraphic evidence for singers consists entirely of persons, 25 altogether, who were either slaves or freed slaves. Of these, ten were women, all of whom were slaves (Wille 1967: 318-319). The epigraphic inventory for instrumentalists is much larger. Instrumentalists were sometimes freeborn, but the vast majority were slaves or freed slaves. Musical virtuosity no doubt helped slaves achieve their freedom, but perhaps it was more difficult to demonstrate virtuosity as a singer than as an instrumentalist. It may be that some singers, chiefly women, accompanied themselves on the lyre, as a way of amplifying their virtuosity, but most likely they did not do so in relation to the star pantomime’s performance. When manumission was a central objective of virtuosity, it was not likely that the pantomimes would encourage a situation in which the virtuosity of the musician might undermine perception of the dancer’s virtuosity. Moreover, a further complication for song was the mysterious attitude toward portamento, which occurs when the musician slides from one tone to another, producing a glissandosound. Before the Hellenistic era, the Greeks expected singers to move from one tone to the next, including microtones, with perfect intonation, without sliding into them. Portamentowas forbidden, for, as Ptolemy tersely remarked: “Sliding tones are the enemy of melody” (Sachs 1943: 207). But in the Hellenistic era, when the preoccupation with microtones faded, portamentoeffects proliferated, coupled with an enthusiasm for mellisma, in which a syllable could slide across several notes, and a singer could disclose considerable uncertainty about the “true” tone of a syllable or word. This sliding effect makes the voice, perhaps more than an instrument, more sensuous or voluptuous, more fluid and unstable, than when producing clearly differentiated shifts in tone. But whereas on the lyre, the musician could mathematically calculate the difference between tones by dividing the string into exact sectors, a singer did not enjoy such a reliable method of hitting the correct note. The possibility of committing a distracting intonation error was therefore greater for singers than for instrumentalists and a further motive on the part of pantomimes to avoid sung accompaniments. Most solo singers probably came from the chorus, and the pantomime ensemble encouraged their talent to the extent that it benefited the pantomime program as a whole. Solo singers thus best demonstrated their virtuosity through the singing of songs that preceded the appearance of the star pantomime and contributed to the unique “aura” cultivated by the pantomime ensemble. These songs intensified the “Dionysian” mood associated with pantomime as an art form and provided spectators with supplementary evidence of the ensemble’s unique ability to evoke an atmosphere of voluptuous luxuriousness. The repertoire of songs would range from hymns and paeans to gods or even to the star pantomime or to patrons to melodies celebrating or lamenting erotic romance, carnal pleasures, or the qualities of the seasons to bawdy if not obscene tunes not much different from what might be sung in a brothel. 

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