The Music of Tragedy

Greek Tragedies were as much musical as theatrical performances.  Much of the text uttered by the Chorus, and some by individual characters as well, was sung.  The ancient tragedians were as much composers as writers, creating both the texts and the musical settings.  Indeed, in Aristophanes’ Frogs, when the ghosts of Aeschylus and Euripides fight over who is the greater playwright, they spent quite a lot of time criticizing and mocking the other’s music.

It’s incredibly frustrating, then, that almost nothing of the original music from any Greek tragedy survives.  The music would have added an entire dimension that we have no access to – we have, in effect, Opera librettos without any scores.  

Which is why it’s so exciting that, in fact, a tiny fragment of Greek choral music does survive.  On one fragment of papyrus, discovered in Egypt, we have six lines from the first Chorus of Euripides’ Orestes. And above each line of text, we have Greek musical notation.

We cannot, of course, be sure that the music is Euripides’ original setting – the papyrus dates from around 200 years after his death – but it certainly a strong possibility.

This fragment contains only a few lines and notes, and even contains gaps.  Recently, however, Armand D’Angour, a Classicist at the University of Oxford, made an experiment in trying to reconstruct from the fragment the melody of the entire choral song.  Based on our knowledge of ancient musical theory, and from the other fragments of music that have come down to us, D’Angour has created a reconstruction of 39 lines of a choral ode (316-355).

In the following video, D’Angour briefly explains his method, and then introduces a performance of the reconstructed chorus (the song begins at 7:09, if you’d prefer to jump straight to it)

I find it a haunting and powerful piece.  The vagaries of reconstruction mean it’s probably not exactly what was performed around 1600 years ago;  but I would like to think it’s close enough to give a flavour of this sadly-lost aspect of ancient drama.


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