L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter IX. Music of the Roman Theatre.

In Rome as in ancient Greece there was a school of music, which was devoted to the stage; but it was not held in such high esteem, nor was it the work of the poet to supply it.

In the French operas bouffes of our day we find the libretto and music to be the work of different persons, and in this respect the Roman comedies resembled them, save that while we rank the music above the text, the Romans valued the words far more than the music; but in other respects there was also much resemblance between the Roman tragedies and modern Opera Seria. They divided the music into parts, such as dialogues or duets, solos, and choruses.

Cicero says that a connoisseur could instantly determine by the style of the music alone, what tragedy was being performed; this would indicate an amount of tone-painting, which justifies our comparison of the Roman with the modern stage.

The theatres were, as usual, of immense size. The Emperor Trajan built an Odeum, or music hall, of which Apollodorus was the architect, which was capable of seating twelve thousand spectators. These structures were usually built of stone, and in the most thorough manner; there is however one notable exception to the rule. In the reign of Tiberius an amphitheatre erected by Atilius at Fidenæ, fell in during a gladiatorial contest, and twenty thousand persons lost their lives.1

The music of the stage, tended rather to virtuosity than to real beauty, the natural result being, that while Rome possessed many skillful performers, she had no musical composers of eminence.2 The names of the composers of music to the comedies of Terence and Plautus are still extant, but they seem to have enjoyed no special renown.

Quintilian speaks of the weak and womanish music of the stage, and Martial in satirizing the Gaditanian female singers which were so much sought for in the later days of ancient Rome, says, that it was the surest sign of a fashionable dandy, to hear a young man trilling out the latest Gaditanian ditties.

Many of the theatrical performers and singers were slaves, who were bought for the purpose, and the most stringent and cruel measures were taken to prevent them from ruining their voices by any kind of debauchery. Theatrical factions also existed for this or that singer, in which at times many lives were lost.3 Laws were afterwards enacted, to guard against such riots.

Another and less tolerable branch of Roman public musical diversion was the dance, which although most skillfully performed by talented pantomimists, was so indecent in its general character, and choice of subjects, that it received strong condemnation from many writers of that day.

Many anecdotes remain, showing how well acted this art must have been.

Demetrius, the cynic (in the reign of Nero) having reproached a dancer, that his art was but an adjunct to music, the performer caused the musical accompanists to cease playing, and enacted the subject of Mars and Venus without music, and in such a manner that Demetrius was obliged to retract, and said, “Even your hands seem to speak.”4

The professional dancers, or musical pantomimists, were most appreciated under the luxurious reign of the Cæsars. A prince of Pontus once came to the court of Nero, where he was royally entertained; as he did not understand the Latin language, he could not appreciate theatrical representations, but a celebrated dancer appearing, he was able to understand his actions from beginning to end. On his departure, when Nero had given him presents, he said “If instead, you would give me this dancer, it would be the greatest favor of all;” on being asked the reason, he replied that he had many barbarian neighbors, whose language he did not understand, and that such an unfailing interpreter would be of incalculable value to him.5

We can learn how much these performers entered into their acting by the following anecdote. A dancer once acting the part of Ajax, in a double character dance, became so frenzied, that he tore the clothes off from the time-beater, (or conductor of music) seized the flute of the accompanist and broke it over the head of Ulysses. The better class of spectators condemned such a novel exhibition, but the lower orders applauded vociferously. The performer afterwards became calm again, but, on being desired to repeat the performance, he replied that it was sufficient for a man to make a fool of himself once.6

The dance in Rome was esteemed only as an amusement and sensual enjoyment, and was not studied by the respectable classes, save sometimes in connection with singing, in which case it was not driven to such excess as the pantomime dance described above; but neither song, instruments, or dance were studied to any large extent among the masses of the Roman people.

This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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