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Hero and Leander as Song: From Ovid’s Heroides to English Monody (1601; 1628–9)

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 13-49 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0003

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

This article focuses on two vocal compositions produced in the early seventeenth century in England about the ancient Hero and Leander myth. These compositions, both inscribed within the monodic tradition, reveal, at the level of text, Ovidian influence and, in particular, the presence of topics developed in Heroides 18 and 19.1

Vel tibi conposita cantetur Epistula voce
Ov. Ars am. 3.345

Je passe mon temps à t’attendre, à te croire mort si tu es
en retard.
[…] J’ai ta voix autour de mon cou.
Jean Cocteau, La Voix humaine

Divided by the Hellespont but kept together by a love capable of crossing the boundary between life and death, the two characters of this story are a beautiful priestess of Aphrodite, bound by a vow of chastity, and a sturdy young man, inflamed by such an overwhelming passion that every night he swam to his beloved until he drowned on a stormy night. Then the power of love forced the girl to commit suicide, realizing in extremis a tragic embrace between love and death. This classical fabula, either reshaped moralistically because of its tragic epilogue or recalled as an example of the invincible power of love, was handed down through several versions after its main ancient testimonia (Verg. G. 3.258–62; Ov. Her. 18 and 19;2 Musaeus’ epyllion Hero and Leander).3

This article will show that, more than other classical sources, Ovid influenced the musical Fortleben of this myth within the monodic tradition developed in England in the early seventeenth century. In particular, Ovid’s device of writing the story in the first person — ‘per voce sola’ — facilitated the eventual treatment of the Hero and Leander fabula in the genre of musical monody.4

1. Fabula as Exemplum: Ph. Rosseter, Shall I Come, if I Swim? (1601)5

The origins of the ‘lute-air’ date from 1597, when John Dowland’s First Booke of Songes or Ayres was printed in London.6 The introduction to this collection was a Latin epigram by Thomas Campion, who four years later composed both text and music of twenty-one songs in A Booke of Ayres.7 This was the result of collaboration between Campion and one of his friends, Philip Rosseter, then King’s lutenist at the court of James I (from 1604 onwards).8 Though scholarly opinions differ, Rosseter is widely considered the author of both the words and music of the second section of airs,9 among which appears the bistrophic Shall I come, if I swim, a polished and witty adaptation of the Hero and Leander myth.10

The style of this piece does not depart from the criteria established in the book’s foreword where Campion provided a sort of ‘manifesto’ for a new aesthetic standard in vocal music. In his ‘apologie of Ayres,’ Campion proposed analogues between air and ancient poetry. Furthermore, he offered a recusatio of the older polyphonic madrigal: he opted instead for the clarity of monody, whose plainness had to be reflected at the poetic level by the perspicuous brevitas of text. A novel relationship between words and music, ‘enfranchising’ the text, was to be afforded by polarity between the melodic line and instrumental accompaniment, regularized rhythmic forms, and exalted musical rhetoric, all based upon natural speech and describing its inflexions.11

In Shall I come, if I swim, the Hero and Leander myth was retold in a witty way. In fact, only in the second part of the text (in the way of an aprosdóketon) does the reader learn that the ancient characters are not the true protagonists of the piece, since they act as an exemplum for a passion so overwhelming that it conquers even the force of a rushing stream. A male voice asks himself, in the first person, whether, with the gods’ assistance, he could reach his beloved. The second stanza expressly cites names and places from the myth as a sort of argumentum a maiore ad minus: if the ancient lovers were able to overcome every hurdle, then the smaller stream dividing the poetic ego from his beloved should be easily crossed. The closing image of Leander, successfully led by Hero’s lamp, leaves out any...


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