restricted access Sudden Song: The Musical Structure of Sophocles’ Trachiniae
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Sudden Song:
The Musical Structure of Sophocles’ Trachiniae

All tragedies deal with fated meetings; how else could there be a play? Fate deals its stroke; sorrow is purged, or turned to rejoicing; there is death, or triumph; there has been a meeting, and a change. No one will ever make a tragedy—and that is well, for one could not bear it—whose grief is that the principals never meet.

Mary Renault, The Mask of Apollo

Sophocles’ Trachiniae is a tragedy whose grief is that the principals never meet. Much critical discussion of the Trachiniae has focused on the play’s unusual structure, either condemning or excusing the division of the action into two disparate sections, the first dominated by Deianeira, the second by Heracles.1 Most analyses depend on particularities of plot and theme to [End Page 1] link the exodos with the first three quarters of the play and do not explore characteristics of form or poetic style. In the last two decades, several scholars have brought to bear a close analysis of poetic language, metrical technique, and the appropriation of other literary genres to their reading of the plays of Sophocles.2 Building on this relatively recent approach, I wish to consider the symbiosis of music and meaning in the Trachiniae.

This paper sets out to shed some light on the relationship between the two unequal parts of the Trachiniae through a discussion of the play’s musical and metrical structure. To do this, I will consider the way in which the design of the play is shaped by when, where, and how music is used as opposed to speech. I hope to draw conclusions from the observation of the details of the play’s articulation.

The defining feature of the musical structure of the Trachiniae is its division into two parts. For the first three quarters of the play, all music [End Page 2] comes from the Chorus, none from the actors; in the last 300 lines, the exodos, this situation is reversed, and all music comes from the actors, while the Chorus refrain from lyrics. This means that Deianeira is exclusively a speaking character—indeed, she speaks more than any other character in the extant plays of Sophocles—while Heracles sings approximately one quarter of his total lines in a metrically varied monody.3 The Chorus of Trachinian maidens perform six songs in alternation with the scenes that feature Deianeira, but after the entrance of Heracles, the women are reduced to a few iambic asides.

What is the effect, and therefore what is the purpose, of this clear antithesis? Setting up so sharp a divide in musical structure serves to reinforce and underscore other dichotomies, such as those of theme, character type, situation, and tragic register. The contrast between Deianeira and Heracles, which operates on all of these levels, constitutes the meeting point of opposing forces in the play, even though the two characters never come together on the stage.

A few points of background are necessary. The assumption that underlies my analysis is that the variation possible within the traditional meters and forms of tragedy provided Sophocles with an effective dramatic tool. Even though the music of the original production is gone and the scansion patterns provide only partial evidence, several elements of the musical design can be reconstructed. I am taking for granted that in tragedy, iambics, anapests, and lyrics were delivered differently—the differences broadly corresponding to speech, chant, and song—and that the change of meter from iambic to anapestic or lyric was attended in performance by musical accompaniment (Csapo and Slater 1994.331–34). We do not know exactly how any actor delivered iambics in contrast to marching anapests, in contrast to melic anapests; we do not know what differences in articulation there were between different styles of delivery or how much they overlapped in performance; we cannot even be sure how strongly expressed the movements between lyric and iambic verses were in a single [End Page 3] actor’s performance.4 Nonetheless, we can be sure that these movements were there, and that a Greek audience accustomed to the conventions of tragedy could be counted on to...