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Dr. Emily Pillinger and Dr. Miranda Stanyon (both of King’s College London) report on a recent conference supported by the ICS.

The conference ‘Amplifying Antiquity: Music as Classical Reception’ was held on the Strand Campus of King’s College London at the end of last year (12-13 December, 2018). The influence of classical antiquity on music composed since the seventeenth century is a neglected but rich field of study, and our conference took a deliberately wide-lens approach to the topic, in the aim of uncovering and connecting as many areas of current research as possible. The result was an eye-opening – not to mention ear-opening – array of papers and discussions. The event was made possible by funding from King’s College London and from the Institute of Classical Studies, for which we are immensely grateful.

Title page of the first edition of Cherubini’s Médée (1797). Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

In the River Room, looking out over the Thames, we heard contributions from an international group of scholars who had travelled from Canada (Toronto), the United States (Princeton, Duke, Dayton, Johns Hopkins), Italy (Foggia), Germany (Bonn), Greece (Athens), and Romania (Bucharest). Speakers included classicists, musicologists, comparatists, historians and scholars of modern languages, at a range of different stages in their careers, from doctoral students to emeritus professors. Everyone there was working to transcend the limits of their respective areas of study through their interdisciplinary research into the way in which Greek and / or Roman antiquity makes its presence felt in more modern sound worlds.

1973 theatrical film poster for Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’. Image credit Wikimedia Commons.

From this wide variety of speakers came an exciting range of papers. We learned of the twentieth century lesbian communities shaped by Natalie Clifford Barney and Maxine Feldman through their musical interpretations of Sappho; we were introduced to the comic (and sometimes not-so-comic) potential of Aristophanes and Socrates in Telemann, Braunfels, and Schubert; and we heard the Catullan lyrics in songs composed in the past hundred years (both choral and solo). We dug into the Renaissance translations of Ovid that shaped early opera; we visited and revisited Ariadne as a means to evoke lost voices, from those of women to those of castrati; and we pondered Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii. Our attention was drawn to the striking presence of some ancient figures (e.g. Sirens, Danaids) and the equally striking absence of others (e.g. Marsyas). Above all the conference revealed the continuing cathartic and anarchic power of musical evocations of antiquity, from the French revolutionary trauma processed in Cherubini’s Médée to the political interventions attempted by contemporary Greek black metal bands.

Musical recital in King’s College Chapel. Image credit Miranda Stanyon.

On the first evening King’s students delivered a recital in the beautiful King’s College Chapel. The singers presented extracts from ‘Echoes of Hellas’ (1883), a work written under the aegis of the King’s Professor of Greek George Warr to raise money for the establishment of the King’s College London Ladies’ Department, and the ‘Lesbian Hymns’ (2018) by Rioghnach Sachs, a King’s PhD candidate in Comparative Literature. The recital reflected King’s history of using musical performance to foster innovative, imaginative, and inclusive approaches to antiquity.

The conference was marked throughout by the pleasure of finding colleagues with similar interests working on diverse and often unexpected areas of musical reception. The questions, answers, and general discussions ranged far and wide, some of which can be glimpsed from our intermittent tweets (#AmpAnt). Looking to the future, the conference has inspired us to think more deeply about how the concept of ‘amplification’ gives us a new model, both literal and metaphorical, for the process of classical reception. For half a millennium music has turned to ancient Greece and Rome as a mechanism or medium of translation, expansion, and distortion, using aural cultures to turn up the volume on an imaginary acoustic world of the past. Musical receptions compose sound from the silence of classical texts and objects; they orchestrate multiple historical layers of meaning; and they harmonise (with varying degrees of dissonance) the historical contexts, politics, and aesthetics of both antiquity and modernity. It is time to take research into this sonic amplification of the ancient world up to 11.

by Emily Pillinger and Miranda Stanyon