chorus and orchestra

It is not the sentiment of tragic pathos that first comes to mind when one considers the theatrical works of Aristophanes (ca. 450-388.B.C.). Quite the contrary, it is their irony and ribaldry. Nevertheless, in one of his most famous plays, The Birds, the great comic genius allows a chorus of birds to address his audience in words imbued with such a sentiment along with a profound spiritual content.

O mankind! Whose nature it is to live in obscurity, like the things we call leaves,
Exhausted, shadow-like and fragile race, castings of clay,
Wingless, ephemeral, miserable mortals, you men: sheer phantoms.
Listen attentively to us, the immortals the everlasting,
The air-borne, the undying, the imperishable who muse upon the soul.
And once we have told you all the truth about the cosmos,
The nature of birds, the birth of the gods, of rivers, of the underworld and of chaos,
And once you have been enlightened, according to us, let old philosophers worry about the rest!

In their capacity as witnesses to human folly, the Birds speak like demigods or like angels to mankind. Their words sound like a prayer, but a prayer in reverse. Listening to the chorus, an audience would be moved by the supplication being directed to it.

Throughout the Parabasis (an extended section for chorus in the play), of which these are but the first eight lines, the Birds implore men to lead good and simple lives, and to learn from them, to imitate them. Indeed, they are trying to convince men, albeit with pungent irreverence, to make them their gods! And that a utopia for mankind is possible. It is not surprising then that the Birds speak of the sophist Prodicus of Chíos, a reference whose meaning becomes clearer when brought forward in time. Now that we have illuminated all the truths, say the Birds, forget what an old Darwin or an Einstein and all your teachers have told you!

Sung in Greek, Litaneia is a setting of the beginning of this Parabasis, together with the bird-song which Aristophanes himself invented and employed further on in this section. The composition is in one-movement, and the distribution of the lines and of the song is as follows:

  1. Introduction—bird song
  2. Three lines of text
  3. Bird song
  4. Two lines of text
  5. Bird song
  6. Three lines of text
  7. Conclusion, recitation of all eight lines.

As its title suggest, Litaneia is an entreaty, a supplication and, like its cognate word litany, a series of repeated invocations.

I was attracted to these words of Aristophanes not only for their intrinsic beauty and poetic power, but also for what I believe is their timely message, even after 2000 years!