Barry Baldwin ~ Golden Oldies

Reprinted with kind permission of Barry Baldwin himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription naturally accrue to the latter.

“The wilder, luminous music in Plato…” – Fort, Books, p315.

Pre-Byzantine musical notation is scant, thus reconstruction is largely dancing in the dark. But there is enough literary evidence to get a sense of classical hit parades.

Homer (Iliad, bk9 v289) depicts Achilles singing of “men’s glorious deeds” to his rapt tent-mate Patroclus — sounds like middle-class student ‘revolutionary’ strumming endless choruses of ‘Guantanamara’. The Odyssey (bk12 v76) mentions “The Argo which all sing” — obviously  Number One on the Bronze Age charts

Aristophanes (dis)credits Euripides with a new dance hit, “The Shake”, well before The Swinging Blue Jeans. His audience may well have left the theatre whistling this play’s nonsense song “Tofhratothratophrat”  and frogs’ ‘Brekekekekoaxkoax — precursors of Right Said Fred and Mr Blobby (Frogs, 209-68, 1265-1314).

Plato, Republic, bk3 paras298-401 distinguishes between ‘good’ (martial Dorian) and ‘bad’ (decadent Ionian) music, perhaps the first demarcation line between classical and pop. His denunciation of the latter is along the lines every teenager has heard from the grown-ups.

British squaddies are famous for ‘Hitler he’s only got one ball’ and suchlike martial ditties. Their Roman counterparts were licensed to slag off their triumphing generals in songs that the general public probably picked up, Suetonius’s Life of Caesar (ch51) provides the best example:

“Home we bring the bald whoremonger/ Romans, lock your wives away /All the Roman gold you sent him/Went his Gallic tarts to pay – Robert Graves’s translation.

Horace (Satires, bk1 no2 vv1-3) maliciously portrays low-class Roman grief the death of the singer Tigellius – you almost expect the wreaths and teddy bears to start piling up at his door. This warbler had one high-class fan, Cicero  (Letters to his Friends, b7. no24), also an homonymous relative who also performed — Rome’s Oasis?

Juvenal (Satire vv63-5) thunders against girls and women who wet themselves while listening to their favourite stars, a damp combination of Roman Beatlemania and the ladies who used to throw their panties at Tom Jones (that green, green ass of home).

Trimalchio, the self-made millionaire host in Petronius’s comic novel Satyricon (ch73 para 3), assaults his guests’ ears by “murdering the songs of Menecrates”, the latter being a musical idol of the age (Suetonius, Nero, ch30) — this could well be the first record of a karaoke performance.  This may or may not (modern opinion varies sharply) a dig at Rome’s greatest (in his own estimation) star of them all. The singing-strumming emperor would be pleased at his 1960s reincarnation by the American group Nero and the Gladiators. Suetonius ‘s Life (ch-20-25) provides a detailed account, supplemented by Tacitus (Annals 14 ch 14-15, bk15 ch34) and pseudo-Lucian, Nero chs 6-10, this last asserting that he once cut out a rival performer’s vocal chords – this would have been effective scene in Espresso Bongo.

Nero began by coaching from pop maestro Terpnus. To strengthen this weak,  husky voice, he underwent a regimen of purgings and vomitings and lying with lead weights on his chest. For concerts, a voice coach was always in the dressing room with advice. Despite the presence of hired claques (nicknamed ‘Bees’, ‘Bricks’, and ‘Roof tiles’ — Roman roadies) to ensure endless Bravos and Encores, he was a nervous performer, especially if he noticed the more captive than captivated audience members who jumped from the theatre wall or feigned death to escape. His debut performance at Naples was enhanced by the theatre’s sudden collapse just after everyone had left. After exhausting Italian audiences, Nero embarked on a concert tour of the major Greek festivals winning 1808 first prizes – puts Michael Jackson’s Victory Tour in the shade. In return for the tactful verdicts, the Greeks were given a decade of tax exemptions — artistic stimulus packages. Apart from his famous ‘Burning of Troy’ intoned over the great Rome fire of AD 64 (Nero, of course, did not fiddle, and Stradivarius was not a Roman emperor), Nero’s versatile (he also fancied himself an ace charioteer) hits included ‘Canace in Labour’ (a Greek mythological heroine pregnant by her brother), ‘Orestes the Matricide’ (tactless choice for one who bumped off his own), and ‘Hercules Mad’, this last so well staged that a young soldier rushed the stage to lend aid.

Arius, eponymous provoker of the first major Christian doctrinal schism. preached his theological message in an elaborate song entitled ‘Thaleia’  (‘Banquet’), and was said by his ideological opponent Athanasius ( On the Synods ch15; cf Philostorgius, Ecclesiastical History bk2 ch3) to have performed rough songs for rough people in rough places, which sounds very much like an ancestor of London’s Roxy Club.

Arius as the progenitor of Rotten and Vicious? A piquant thought. The picture is completed by Arius’s fate, one shared by all the drummers of This is Spinal Tap, self-combustion sitting one Saturday in a Constantinople public jakes (FT 133:19),a destiny Nancy Spungeon would surely have envied.

I have no plans to adapt this column for public performance.

Classical Corner 142: Fortean Times 280 (October, 2011), p. 21.