Performance Styles

The Homeric poems and their antecedents were performed in at least two distinct styles. The oldest was that of the 'aoidoi' (singers), who improvised to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, providing dinnertime entertainment to the nobility, as depicted in several noted scenes in the Odyssey (warriors also used to perform for themselves, for example Achilles in the Iliad). Aoidoi would have performed compositions similar to episodes from the Homeric poems, but not the poems as such, since they were much too long. Aoidoi existed in the Mycenaean period, and their art was somehow preserved through the Greek Dark Ages.

We don't know how the Iliad and the Odyssey were created; one idea is that they were composed by an aoidos who saw the possiblities of the newly introduced system of writing to support the creation of really large poems, and got a patron to subsidise the cost. Another possibility is that they were incrementally created by the later performers, the rhapsodes, by a process of `competitive collaboration' whereby the various stories contributing to the epics were performed in sequence and gradually worked into a coherent whole (this would provide a nice account of the meaning of the term `rhapsode', which is `stitcher'). At any rate it seems likely that there was a progression from a great freedom to innovate for the aoidoi, to an increasing rigidity, for the rhapsodes, accompanied by increasing standardization of the written texts (Nagy 1996:100-110).

At any event, by the middle of the sixth century BCE, the Homeric poems (and various other large poems in the same form) were being performed by competitive professional entertainers, the rhapsodes, who performed standing up to crowds, holding a staff but no musical instrument, and whose attitudes and mentality don't seem to have been too different from that modern show business personalities, as indicated by this quote from Plato's Ion:

For I tell will you without reserve: when I relate a tale of woe, my eyes fill with tears; and when it is of fear or awe, my hair stands on end with terror, and my heart laps ...
For I have to pay the closest attention to them [the audience]; since, if I set them crying, I shall laugh myself because of the money I take, but if they laugh, I myself shall cry because of the money I lose.
  (Plato's `Ion' 535C,E).

It is unclear how much freedom to innovate the rhapsodes had, but it is clear that they thought of themselves as performing the works of a definite poet, Homer, rather than actively building something creative, or directly receiving inspiration from the muses, as the original aoidoi claimed to do.

Although many people would prefer to try to emulate the aoidoi, there are some reasons why the rhapsodes might be more plausible targets. For one thing, there is no need to figure out what to do with the stringed instrument, eliminating one set of arbitrary choices where there are more than enough that can't be avoided. It also seems to me that the social context of a rhapsodic perfomance is not so different from that of modern entertainment competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest, or 'Battle of the Bard'-type events at poetry festivals, so that one can actually be a real rhapsode in a sense in which it is probably not possible for a modern person to be a real aoidos. Another consideration is that it is not necessarily the case that what the aoidoi performed was really that much like the Homeric poems as we know them, since we don't know how extensive the contributions of the later performers were.

Be that as it may, Danek and Hagel have worked out quite a nice-sounding aoidic style, which can be usefully compared to the attempted rhapsodic one on this site. My guess is that since the rhapsodic style was bigtime public entertainment in a mediterranean country, it may have had to be more 'dynamic' than the performances of the aoidoi.

Due to its cultural importance and competitive nature, I think it is highly likely that the rhapsodes had an extremely developed system of vocal techniques, comparable in sophistication and difficulty to modern concert singing, allowing them to combine control and expressiveness with enough volume to address large crowds under sometimes suboptimal circumstances. But since these presumed vocal techniques are now entirely lost, it would seem better to go for a simple 'plain and straight' delivery rather than a hammed-up or ornamented one.

Created by: Avery Andrews
Maintained by: Avery Andrews
Last modified: July 7, 2002