- Choruses, Ancient and Modern ed. by Joshua Billings, Felix Budelmann, and Fiona Macintosh
Three editors, twenty contributors—and the result is a lot of information, considerable intelligence, and little coherence. The connecting thread is supposed to be one or another sort of relationship to the ancient Greek chorus, which originated in dance and combined movement and music with words. Two chapters deal with this combination, but Kikuyu chant and the Broadway musical have nothing to do with Greece. (Ian Rutherford’s piece on the history of the anthropology of the chorus, however, is instructive.) The book deals almost entirely with drama, although much, perhaps most, of Greek choral performance was nondramatic. So Wagner is included here (in a rather interesting chapter, actually), although talk of his “choral orchestra” is desperate special pleading, and the opera of Wagner’s in which the chorus matters most, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, is not discussed. Of the greatest achievements of choral art since antiquity, in the Mass and Passions of Bach and in Beethoven’s Missa Sollemnis, there is not a word. Indeed, simply as contributions to dramatic storytelling, Bach’s turba choruses far surpass anything treated in this book. The editors begin with the observation that, for the Greeks, a work that was akhoreutos, “without chorus,” was lacking something essential. The essence of chorus is discipline, the subordination of individual expression to collective presentation. This is an “unchoral” volume, lacking collective discipline, though with some good individual performances. [End Page 525]
Richard Jenkyns, emeritus professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University, is the author of Classical Literature; God, Space, and City in the Roman Imagination; The Victorians and Ancient Greece; Dignity and Decadence; Virgil’s Experience; and A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen.