Monday, November 16, 2020

Music and Tragedy

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Myth and music are the principal roots of drama. Myths always played an important role in human societies. They created a process of communication between people, in which some individuals shared with others their understanding of the world. That was achieved by offering a representation of the world and by giving it a plot, so that it would be interesting and familiar to the audience and not just a dry lesson. Music could play a similar role, communicating situations and emotions by sounds and harmony. In the western tradition, the first tragedies were myths which were danced and sung by a chorus at festivals in honour of Dionysus (God of Wine), in ancient Greece. The earliest presentations probably consisted of a chorus of men dancing in a ring, reciting or chanting some Greek myth while individual performers would stand on a rough wooden platform or cart. Spectators were seated on a hillside to view these early plays. In the open-air, day-lit Greek theatre, the chorus was a practical necessity. It made the transitions between scenes, giving actors the chance to enter and leave the playing area, and even announced what characters those actors portrayed. But the function of the chorus goes beyond this. The choral odes, accompanied by dancing and music, were part of the entertainment itself. The chorus both commented on the events and participated in them, so that it was both involved in the action and detached from it. The instruments heard were the same ones that were used for all other kinds of musical activities, the aulos, a wind instrument with two pipes, percussion and string instruments as the lyre which also coloured musically the poems of epic poets like Homer.

It was in 54 B.C. that perhaps the most important stage in the creation of drama was reached with Thespis, who invented an actor who conversed with the leader of the chorus, and by his reports of events occurring off the stage could provide the chorus with materials for fresh songs in new scenes. Through the addition of a second actor (by Aeschylus) and a third (by Sophocles), the representation was made possible of a drama which could show and develop a human situation in all its aspects. Now it should be made clear that from this point on we are talking about the evolution of tragedy and tragic theatre in Athens, and that this evolution was connected and depended on the evolution of democracy in that city. This new political independence meant that any free male citizen of Athens could achieve being one of the rulers of the city and having the fate of his community in his hands. The need to understand and to be taught how to deal with power was obvious for the men of the city, and it was in this climate that Greek tragedy emerged.

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