Guest Post: The Bakkhai According to Dylan Mattingly

Bakkhai, The Death of Pentheus

Bakkhai, The Death of Pentheus

Earlier this year, I attended a preview of Dylan Mattingly’s new choral work, The Bakkhai. I was bowled over by the work and fascinated by the story of its creation. December 10, 7PM, at Bard’s Chapel of the Holy Innocents, Contemporaneous will perform the work live in its entirety, and I can hardly wait. In anticipation of the performance, I’m delighted to present The Bakkhai Accordingly to Dylan Mattingly on Prufrock’s.


This music is not what Euripides’ own music would have sounded like, but perhaps it sheds some light upon what his music would have felt like.
—Dylan Mattingly

Hello! My name is Dylan Mattingly, and I’m a composer and classics major in my fifth year at Bard College. I’d like to thank Sue for allowing me to guest-post on her wonderful blog, and I’ll try and keep the level of discourse somewhere approaching her high standard.

On Tuesday, December 10th at 7PM in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, Contemporaneous will be giving the premiere of a huge new work of mine, The Bakkhai. The text of the Bakkhai (scored for three sopranos, tenor, two oboes, cello, bass, retuned piano, and two percussionists) is a transliteration of the original ancient Greek text of the seven choruses of the tragedy of the same name, written by Euripides in Athens in 404 B.C. Additionally, the music itself is an attempt to recreate the feeling of the unsettling, beautiful, horrifying, and ecstatic choruses of the play, and many of the original rhythmic and metric patterns within the Greek have been used as inspiration. That said, the piece is not a reconstruction. This music is not what Euripides’ own music would have sounded like, but perhaps it sheds some light upon what his music would have felt like.

The piece will be followed by a panel discussion about ancient Greek music and the Bakkhai in particular with classicists Lauren Curtis, Helene Foley, and Daniel Mendelsohn.

In this post, I want to give a little background about this project, which beyond the 45 minutes of music (and interceding narration of the drama) also includes an extensive exploration into the actual music of Athenian tragedy, its sound and rhythm, and the way its intricacies have been obscured by the inescapable influence of western Classical music. The combination of this research and the music itself comprise my “senior project” (Bard’s version of the thesis).

The Story of Euripides’ Bakkhai

. . . as an artist, the Bakkhai presents what is always the crucial question — how much of myself can I and should I give to the creative spirit?
—Dylan Mattingly

Let me go back to the beginning.

For the last year and a half, I have been in the thrall of the strangest surviving tragedy from Athens in the 5th century B.C., Euripides’ Bakkhai. (The Latin-ized spelling “Bacchae” is more often used, but B-A-K-KH-A-I is the direct transliteration from Greek.) The play, written just as the Athenian empire was facing its demise at the hands of the less-artistically-inclined Spartans, tells the story of Dionysos’ return to his birthplace of Thebes. Dionysos, at the time of the drama, is a new god, and the young king of Thebes, Pentheus, sees him as the leader of a foreign cult rather than an actual god. Indeed, Dionysos’ followers consist entirely of women, known as the bakkhai, whom he has gathered on an Asian tour, bringing wine, sex, dance, ecstasy, and oblivion to everyone around. The bakkhai have now come to Thebes, and all the women in the city have gone up the mountain to engage in some sort of mysterious rituals. Meanwhile, the men of the city are beginning to dress like women and join the dance, in order to honor the god. Pentheus, trying to keep order, imprisons the god and looks for a peaceful way to bring everyone back down from the mountainside.

Our impression of Pentheus is that of a petulant child, opposed to pleasure for himself and others, because it threatens his own power. Additionally, what Dionysos gives to the people are things that we consider crucial to our being — he is the god of art, and by simply going to the theater, we are giving credence to this ecstatic communal activity. And so our inherent allegiance is to Dionysos. But what happens throughout the rest of the play causes us to reconsider these dispositions — Dionysos and his followers completely destroy Pentheus (and, in a mysterious moment of theater, the world, about halfway through the play). The bakkhai rip him into an “innumerable amount of pieces” and then “play ball with his flesh.” Whatever Pentheus may have deserved, the justice that Dionysos deals out is horrifying.

So then, what are we to make of this play? It appears to be a work of stunning creative genius about the potentially destructive power of creativity. Is it a political allegory for the failure of democracy in Athens, the easy transition from the autonomous political body to the bloodthirsty mob? Like Socrates’ renunciation of democracy and non-propagandistic art within Plato’s Republic, we can see this perhaps as an artist’s regretful acceptance that the culture which allowed for the existence of art was ultimately a political failure. But the Bakkhai is more than just a cautionary political tale. It is an unbelievably beautiful work of poetry (and music, though the aspects other than the meter of the music have been lost). Moreover, as an artist, the Bakkhai presents what is always the crucial question — how much of myself can I and should I give to the creative spirit?

Music in Ancient Greece: The Beat

Euripides was a member of a musical revolution known as the “New Music,” which built upon the old traditions and created what was said to be a stunningly complex and difficult harmonic and rhythmic musical fabric, made possible by the new level of musicianship skill within Athens.
—Dylan Mattingly

With that small background about the Bakkhai, let me talk a bit about the music of ancient Greek tragedy.

It seems that every few months, a new “reconstruction” of an ancient Greek tune or scale pops up on the internet. You’ve probably heard one. In general, these tracks are simple, with just a single line (no harmony in our sense of the word) and maybe a voice singing in unison with that line. Sometimes there will be some percussion in the background, but for the most part, what you’re hearing is small and uncomplicated.

The music of Euripidean Greek tragedy would not have sounded like that. Tragic music can be divided into three parts — the dance, the music, and the meter. Of those three, the meter is the only thing that survives. In ancient Greek, syllables have an inherent length, based for the most part on intuitive natural factors. A vowel followed by two consonants will be longer than one followed by just one consonant, because it takes longer to speak the two consonants. This phenomenon exists in English as well, although we do not typically quantify it as the Greeks did. Say aloud the word “ecstasy”. The first syllable of “ecstasy” is naturally longer than the following two, because you have to separate the “c” from the “st” consonant sounds.

Greek meter uses these different lengths of the syllables to create rhythmic patterns that are entirely identifiable by the words themselves. Whereas in English poetic meters, we use stress (think of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter), in Greek, the meter is directed by syllable length. Through this, the poet (and composer) created incredibly complex rhythmic patterns and variations in their writing. Although the entirety of a tragedy would be in verse, the choruses were the pinnacle of the musical brilliance.

The patterns within these incredible choruses however are hard to pin down. Because the words were memorized by the performers, there was more allowance for variation within a pattern than what we are used to in the modern Western world. While we might see a six beat and a seven beat pattern as completely different, in Greek meter it would be possible for one pattern to exist in both six and seven beats, because of the existence of the “anceps” — a syllable in the pattern that could be either short or long. For instance, if the short syllable is represented by “u” and the long by “—” and the anceps by “x”, then the pattern x — u — (known as an “iambic metron”) could be either 6 or 7 beats long (since the long syllables were almost always twice the length of a short), depending on whether or not the “anceps” is short or long. The length of the anceps was decided by the natural length of the syllable of the word, and since the singers were singing the music from memory of the words, there would be no chance of singing the wrong length. Thus, the composer could use a single pattern, but vary its length by means of the chosen words.

Without delving into the extreme details of the matter here, suffice it to say that most classicists have not been thrilled by the idea of a variation that presents a changing beat, rather than a steady beat. Not only does this make meter harder to analyze, but it separates it from the tradition of classical music, where music is prescribed by time signatures and an underlying steady beat.

What I propose within my senior project is a different understanding — an embrace of the variation of Greek meter, as opposed to the anachronistically imposed ideal patterns that suggest a steady beat. It has traditionally been suggested that without a steady beat, the music would have fallen into chaos. But if we assume instead that the exact rhythms that exist in the text are the beats themselves, changing quantities constantly, we are able to see a music that is not constrained by the western Classical tradition, a much more exciting rhythmic music steeped in a culture of constant change.

And time after time in newer classical music, we see that this paradigm of the constantly changing beat does not make patterns unrecognizable or imply a chaotic rhythmic pulse. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for instance is famously composed using small, changing rhythmic cells, just like Greek tragic meter. Steve Reich’s Tehillim is a great example of a piece of music for singers, percussionists and some instrumentalists (similar to how Greek tragedy would have been scored) that is carried by a constantly driving and changing rhythmic pulse.

Moreover, with the expansion of the Athenian empire to encompass the entire Aegean sea in the 5th century B.C., there was a vast demand for musicians, and the level of musicianship consequently became extremely high. Virtuosos from across the empire came to Athens to demonstrate their skill, and the composers took notice. Euripides was a member of a musical revolution known as the “New Music,” which built upon the old traditions and created what was said to be a stunningly complex and difficult harmonic and rhythmic musical fabric, made possible by the new level of musicianship skill within Athens.

This “New Music” would not have sounded like the single line recreations that we hear. It would have been breathtaking, with layers of complexity that even after thousands of years of scholarship we are only just starting to be able to tease out. This was not music that fit to ideal measured patterns like a 4/4 time signature.

Music in Ancient Greece: The Sound

In ancient Greece, tuning would have been an act of just intonation, an attempt to find the perfect consonances between the notes, like finding the harmony within the universe. The equal temperament of the twelve notes on the piano would not be invented for another 2000 years. Despite this fact, classicists have tried for years to understand Greek notes and scales based on tuning as temperament, an inherently futile venture.
—Dylan Mattingly

The other important aspect of ancient Greek music to discuss is its tuning. In delving into what the music of The Bakkhai could have sounded like, we will have to make the treacherous expedition into the world of pitch — the single most disputed and fluctuating element of music throughout history.

First it is important to understand that the concept of tuning was a much more fundamentally important concept in most of music history than it is today. Although currently we imagine tuning to be a small mathematical task, where we check a pitch against an objective source and then make the necessary changes, until about two hundred years ago, tuning was the most individual and debated part of western music.

What we think of as tuning, the Greeks called harmonia. In Greek, harmonia meant a sort of fitting together — a cosmic perfection. And this harmony was not in the form of chords, like C major or D flat minor as we think about harmony today — harmonia was in the tuning itself. In The Republic, Plato writes the following:

…those whom we shall be rearing should never attempt to learn anything imperfect, anything that doesn’t always come out at the point where everything ought to arrive, as we were just saying about astronomy. Or don’t you know that they do something similar with harmony too? For, measuring the heard accords and sounds against one another, they labor without profit, like the astronomers.’ ‘Yes, by the gods,’ he said, ‘and how ridiculous they are. They name certain notes ‘dense’ and set their ears alongside, as though they were hunting a voice from the neighbors’ house. Some say they distinctly hear still another note in between and that this is the smallest interval by which the rest must be measured, while others insist that it is like those already sounded. (tr. Bloom, 530c-531b)

Here we see an in-depth description of harmony — of tuning and the search for this smallest interval, the diesis, from which other intervallic relationships might be drawn. And it is here that we may take note of how this tuning is approached, for herein lies a crucial difference between ancient music and most modern Western music. Plato writes that “measuring the heard accords and sounds against one another, they labor without profit.” The words here translated as “accords” and “sounds” are συμφωνία (symphonia) and φθόγγος (phthoggos) meaning something like consonance and sound. In relation to συμφωνία (symphonia), φθόγγος (phthoggos) specifically refers to the less musical sound of speech. Whereas in the modern world we see dissonance as the opposite of consonance, here φθόγγος  (phthoggos) represents an antithetical to συμφωνία (symphonia), in the way that ambient noise represents an antithetical to intentional music. The tuning system here is created by listening and consonance. Moreover, it is the tuning that creates music from nothing.

When tuning a cello’s strings, the cellist is not using equal temperament (the tuning of a piano, unchanging and unnatural, where all notes are equally spaced), but tuning them a mathematically perfect fifth apart. What this means is that the sound of one note is moving at exactly 3:2 the frequency of the lower note. In just intonation (and in tuning all throughout history), the goal is to tune pitches to these natural ratios. So the cellist tunes the strings by playing two strings together, searching for the perfect interval and listening for an acoustic phenomenon called “beats.” In this case, “beats” refer to the “wah-wah-like” sound created by dissonant sound waves, as the more complex the relationship is of one note to another, the less the two sound waves will line up. The more peaks and valleys create more “beats,” which can be heard with a careful ear.

And so the cellist plays the two strings together and listens for those “beats” created by the dissonance of the two sound waves, turning the fine-tuners back and forth, tightening and loosening the string, bringing the pitch up or down, until finally there is — nothing. There are no beats anymore once the two notes are a perfect fifth away from each other.

A perfect fifth is a natural interval — a string that is 2/3 as long as another one will make a pitch one perfect fifth above the first one, and a string that vibrates 3/2 as fast as another string will also create a note a perfect fifth above. These natural intervals make up what is known as the overtone series. A string split in half creates an octave, in three creates perfect fifths, in five creates major thirds, in seven creates a dominant seventh (a little lower than on the piano), in eleven creates an interval about a quarter tone higher than a fourth. All of these intervals are purely consonant — they vibrate in sync with each other, because they all are contained within the same sound wave. These are the notes that are consonant, the notes that are in tune.

What they are not, however, is in tune with a piano, or with most Western music of the last few hundred years. A piano is tuned in equal-temperament.

A temperament is distinct from a tuning in that its purpose is not to perfectly tune the notes, but rather to evenly space them. Thus a piano has twelve notes in each octave that are all an equal distance apart. This gives the performer and the composer the ability to move deftly through any key, through any note, all of them with the same degree of consonance (and dissonance). But the intervals on a piano are not in tune with the intervals in the overtone series, the perfect and natural tuning (known today as just intonation). A just-intoned perfect fifth is only two cents from the equal-tempered one (a minuscule, almost imperceptible difference, as there are 100 cents in a half step), and a major third is relatively close, only about 14 cents away. But the seventh in the overtone series is about 31 cents from the equal tempered dominant seventh (there are 100 cents in a half step, so this is a very perceptible amount), and the 11th would be almost exactly in between the fourth and the tritone on a piano.

Clearly, the twelve notes that in Western music we have become so accustomed to are not a natural or perfect set of notes. These are notes that have been carefully constructed over hundreds of years to serve religious and political pressures, and to create a musical system that is adequate for many intervals, but absolutely consonant for none.

When you first hear naturally tuned intervals, the reaction varies on the scale from rejection to catharsis — these intervals are not what we hear in the modern world, but rather are a more fundamental, natural music. Just intonation has taken a role as the “mystic” of new music, where the musical quest is partially a quest for a higher universal logic, as it was for Plato. It should be noted that some composers of just-intoned music take exception to the religious connotations that this label carries.

While there is much more to be said about the distinction between just intonation and equal temperament, the most important thing to take away is that just intonation is a based on the natural ratios between the notes. Equal temperament on the other hand is a relatively recent invention (only becoming popular in the last few hundred years), which defies the natural relationships of the notes to create an equally imperfect distance between each half step. In ancient Greece, tuning would have been an act of just intonation, an attempt to find the perfect consonances between the notes, like finding the harmony within the universe. The equal temperament of the twelve notes on the piano would not be invented for another 2000 years. Despite this fact, classicists have tried for years to understand Greek notes and scales based on tuning as temperament, an inherently futile venture.

(If you scroll to the end of the post, you can listen to two examples of new music in just intonation: Toby Twining’s Chrysalid Requiem and Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 9.)

Dylan Mattingly’s The Bakkhai

Finally, we have made it to my music. The piece is tuned to just intonation, the piano itself retuned based on the ratios between the notes to create a scale based on the overtone series of the note B. Moreover, it uses the incredible patterns and variation of Euripides’ choral meter as its rhythmic inspiration.

Once again, it is the goal of the music to create something that captures the emotional impact that Euripides’ choruses would have had, while using the knowledge of how his music was constructed, but in doing so I have created something completely new. The music that I have written is very much my own, inspired musically by my own life as well as my own experience of and interpretation of the choruses of the Bakkhai.

I hope your trip here through my discussion of ancient Greek tragic music has been enjoyable, and I’d like to leave you with Contemporaneous’ recording of the first of the seven choruses of my music.

I hope to see you on December 10th, where we’ll be playing all seven, followed by what I’m sure is going to be an exciting panel discussion.

And thank you again to Sue for your always insightful and curious blog, it’s an honor to be a part of your explorations into music and the world!

About Dylan Mattingly

Composer Dylan Mattingly (Photograph by Dávid Adam Nagy)

Composer Dylan Mattingly (Photograph by Dávid Adam Nagy)

Mattingly currently studies composition at the Bard College Conservatory of Music with George Tsontakis, Joan Tower, and Kyle Gann. Mattingly is the co-artistic director and co-founder of Contemporaneous, in which he performs frequently as a cellist, bassist, pianist, guitarist, and percussionist. Mattingly is also a classics major at Bard College studying Ancient Greek and Latin, as well as a painter, poet, playwright, and a pitcher for Bard College’s first-ever baseball team. For more news, reviews, audio, and information about Dylan Mattingly, click here and here.


Listening List

The Bakkhai (First Chorus)

Dylan Mattingly: First Chorus of The Bakkhai

The Beat (Changing Pulse)

Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Part I (Adoration of the Earth)

Steve Reich, Tehillim, Part 1

The Sound (Just Intonation)

Toby Twining, Chrysalid Requiem, Kyrie

Ben Johnston, String Quartet No. 9


Credits: The photograph at the head of the post may be found here. The quotation from Plato’s The Republic may be found here. The photograph of Mattingly at the foot of the post is by Dávid Adam Nagy.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Bakkhai According to Dylan Mattingly

  1. David N

    Just a precipitate drop-in to say how genuinely excited I am about this. My PhD, which never happened due to time, money and Oxford’s attitude at the time that it was ‘not an interdisciplinary university’, was going to be on Greek tragedy and 20th century opera. Ashamed to say I never even got round to hearing Henze’s The Bassarids. But I’ve loved Xenakis’s experiments in the genre, and John Buller wrote a fine work, BAkXAI, which was performed at ENO.

    So to have the best and brightest of young composers giving this serious attention is, to say the least, good news. Must dash but will return to read at leisure and – most important – to listen.

    1. David N

      So, Parsifals despatched, I’ve read and listened. The variety and euphoria of the first chorus dazzle (and they seem to tie in pretty well with the words, if I’ve got the right passage in my old Dodds-edited Oxford text). I can’t wait to hear what DM makes of the ‘sparagmos’, the horrific climax. 45 minutes – hugely ambitious, but one would expect no less. And how well he has explained difficult concepts in clear language. It’s tough on the young singers, though – they’re going to have to really work on energy and an attempt to convey meaning (they must know what they’re singing about). Ideally you want the BBC Singers or Tenebrae, or the equivalent of groups like that in New York. Look forward to Sue’s further report.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: I remember you’d hoped to study on a double track, but I don’t think I knew that what you wanted to study was Greek tragedy and 20th C opera! Too bad Oxford was so blinkered about such things at the time. (I am of course now busily following the trail of breadcrumbs you’ve set down in your first comment: found Henze, Buller (though not the Baxhai), and I see Harry Partch has a piece based on The Bakkhai.)

        I’m really thrilled that Dylan wrote this post for the blog. Much of this is new to me, and I find it all fascinating. I can hardly wait for the live performance. It’s definitely a particular challenge for the singers (how does a singer get his/her voice around the just intonation pitches, for one). In the time-honored way of Contemporaneous, a lot of rehearsal time has gone into getting it right. It’s going to be an exciting night.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Interesting! I didn’t know of the chant, so of course had to look it up. There are so many fascinating musical trails to follow worldwide, aren’t there?

  2. shoreacres

    On a first read, I nearly was lost until I got to the section on tunings. Whatever I lack in theory, I understand perfectly well in practice – at least as far as the “beats” go. In the days when I still was playing guitar, I used precisely that method to tune, “tightening and loosening the string, bringing the pitch up or down, until finally there is — nothing.” Very interesting.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: You know, in my case, the tuning section was hardest to grasp. As I’ve only played piano, I never had to tune the strings, and what the piano tuner did was always a mystery to me.

  3. angela

    This is far beyond my scope of understanding – I’ve skipped paragraphs, then sampled music only to read back up the page to try to figure why the idea of tuning was adjusted 2000 years later (and other things that this young maestro has touched upon…). My simple mind concludes one thing regarding this bigger picture of the evolution of music – it is akin to understanding the art of the pyramids – we may be an advanced civilization, but the ancients still leave us in awe. ~

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Not a simple mind! In fact, seems to me you’ve got straight to the heart of something quite important by analogizing to the art of the pyramids.

  4. Anil

    A very interesting story, one I hadn’t heard of until now.

    I think creativity, when pursued relentlessly, consumes the creator in his/her effort to exploit their potential to the maximum in an attempt to create a masterpiece. The process can end up consuming energies to an extent that can unhinge the mind, scatter sense, and kill sensibility toward anything other than one’s own pursuit.

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