Styles & Forms | Music in Classical Antiquity | Roots of Opera

The musical culture of ancient Greece has had a profound influence on the history of Western music. However, its legacy is particularly evident in the emergence of opera in the early seventeenth century. Even though we have little idea about what ancient Greek music actually sounded like – composers and musicians did not write their music down – there are plenty of sources of information about it.

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle discussed it in their treatises, theorists analysed its melodies and rhythms, craftsmen painted musical scenes on their pottery bowls, and, of course, we have the works of the great tragedians themselves – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

Greek Drama

In the fifth century bc, the city-state of Athens witnessed a great flourishing of artistic and intellectual achievement, among the greatest of which was the development of tragedy. The dramas of ancient Greece had their origins in choral dances performed by ordinary citizens in ritual ceremonies, and these two aspects of the tragedy – the ritual and the choral – remained among the most important of its defining features, even when the element of story-telling (drama as we understand it today) assumed a more prominent role.

Greek tragedies were performed as part of the formal celebrations at the Great Dionysia, a festival of Dionysos, the god of wine, music and poetry. The three most famous tragedians were Aeschylus (525–456 bc), Sophocles (c. 496–406 bc) and Euripides (c. 485–c. 406 bc), and their works were revered in antiquity just as much as they are today. Aeschylus was the oldest of the trio. He wrote over 90 plays, of which only seven survive. Of these, the Oresteia, a trilogy of three tragedies, is perhaps the most famous: it was performed in 458 bc and won the festival competition.

Sophocles wrote over 120 dramas, but again only seven survive, among them the famous Oedipus Tyrannos (‘Oedipus the King’). Euripides, the youngest of the great tragedians, wrote about 90 plays, of which 19 are still known today.

The Greek Theatre

The Theatre of Dionysos in Athens, where the tragedies were performed, stood at the foot of the south-eastern end of the Acropolis in the sanctuary of Dionysos. Like other Greek theatres, it was a vast space, wholly open to the sky, and by the fourth century it could seat around 20,000 spectators. The audience sat in tiers of seats that were arranged in a horseshoe shape carved out of the rock of the Acropolis, and looked down upon the action below them. This was known as the theatron, ‘the place for seeing’. At the centre of the horseshoe was a flat, circular piece of ground, called the orchéstra, ‘the place for dancing’, which housed the altar of Dionysos and was where the choros of citizens performed their songs and dances. Behind this, facing the audience, was the skéne, or stage. In the fifth century bc this...

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