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The Swan’s Flight: Old Words and New Music

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 1-12 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The articles in this special volume of Syllecta Classica began as papers delivered at a conference titled “Re-Creation: Musical Reception of Classical Antiquity,” hosted by the Department of Classics and the School of Music at the University of Iowa in October of 2011.1 The conference opened on October 27 with a demonstration of the broad chronological range of musical reception. An afternoon lecture by Wendy Heller on Jacopo Peri’s late Renaissance opera Euridice was followed by an evening concert by the University of Iowa’s Center for New Music, programmed and directed by David Gompper.2 The concert had as its thematic spine twentieth-century settings of Sappho’s poetry, beginning with three of Ivor Gurney’s “Seven Sappho Songs,” including compositions by Lennox Berkeley, Steven Stuckey, Goffredo Petrassi, and concluding with Luigi Dallapiccola’s “Cinque frammenti di Saffo” and “Sex carmina Alcaei.” In between these samplings of archaic lyric there was also a wide range of pieces, from a highly colored aria for Odysseus from August Bungert’s opera Odysseus’ Heimkehr (1896) to an arresting performance of Ludwig Senfl’s 1539 setting of Horace Odes 2.20, Non usitata nec tenui ferar, re-imagined for the occasion by Gompper. Ludwig Senfl was a Swissborn composer active in Germany during the early sixteenth century, whom a contemporary called in musica totius Germaniae nunc princeps (right now the first in music in all Germany).3 A prolific composer of lieder and polyphonic masses and motets, Senfl also experimented in the 1530s with setting ancient Latin poetry to rhythms that reflected the original meters. His setting of Horace’s Odes 2.20 provides a comparatively simple but clear illustration of the complications involved in the musical interpretation and performance of antiquity. I begin with a consideration of that poem and Senfl’s setting as an introduction to the issues examined in the articles that follow this essay.

Non usitata nec tenui ferar closes Horace’s second book of Odes with a prediction of the poet’s immortality, and is itself an act of musical reception. The opening two stanzas are:

Non usitata nec tenui ferar
penna biformis per liquidum aethera
  vates, neque in terris morabor
    longius, invidia maior

urbis relinquam. Non ego, pauperum
sanguis parentum, non ego, quem vocas,
  dilecte Maecenas, obibo
    nec Stygia cohibebor unda.

By no light or common feather shall I be borne, a singer and seer, my shape changed, through the bright air, and I shall not tarry, earthbound, much longer, but I shall leave city life, transcending pettiness. I shall not die, though from impoverished family, not I, whom you, my dear Maecenas, call friend, nor shall I be confined by the Stygian lake.

The meter is Horace’s adaptation of Greek alcaics to the demands of the Latin language. The opening lines carry a memory of a choral passage in Euripides.4 But the allusion is oblique, and in the background of the poem there seems to be a skein of reference that also includes the lyrics of Alcman, Theognis, and Pindar.5

The third through fifth stanzas explain that in death Horace’s spirit will be transformed into a swan, and that it will fly the circuit of the known world. The final stanza’s forbidding mourning again nods at a literary model:

Absint inani funere neniae
luctusque turpes et querimoniae;
  compesce clamorem ac sepulcri
    mitte supervacuos honores.

Let there be no dirges with their empty mourning, nor shameful grief and lamenting; repress your noisy cries, and forget the pointless honors of a tomb.

Ennius had written the couplet, Nemo me lacrimis decoret nec funera fletu / faxit. Cur? Volito vivos per ora virum (“Let no one honor me with tears, nor celebrate my funeral with weeping. Why? Alive I fly from mouth to mouth of men.”6 ) This epigram appears to give form both to Horace’s final thought, and perhaps also the larger conceit that his soul (and so, his poetry) will soar from east to west over the entire Augustan oikoumene. In Horace the medium is the message. Poetry lasts, and grants immortality: the snatches of Euripides and Ennius and the other poets survive in Horace’s own poetic flight...

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