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BBC Introducing at the 2014 Manchester Jazz Festival
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Ancient Greece

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 28 December 2008

Actors Tim McMullan and Clare Higgins read poems and prose extracts by Shakespeare, Keats, Auden and Homer etc on the subject of Ancient Greece. With music by Schubert, Tippett, Bernstein, Stravinsky and Ravel

Music Played

25 items
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Image for Maurice Ravel

    Maurice Ravel Lever du jour from Daphnis et Chloe, Lever du jour from Daphnis et Chloe

    Performer: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado


  • Keats

    On first looking into Chapman’s Homer (CH)

  • Homer (trans by George Chapman)

    Beg of The Odyssey (CH)

  • Image for Maw

    Maw Odyssey

    Performer: CBSO, Simon Rattle

    EMI 7542772

  • Cavafy (trans Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

    Ithaka (CH)

  • Image for Henri Duparc

    Henri Duparc L'invitation au voyage

    Performer: Barbara Hendricks, soprano, Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon, John Eliot Gardiner


  • Tennyson

    Ulysses (TM)

  • Image for Jacques Offenbach

    Jacques Offenbach Couplets des Rois from La belle Helene

    Performer: Various soloists, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski


  • Marlowe

    Faust’s speech from Dr Faustus (TM)

  • Image for Richard Strauss

    Richard Strauss Zweite Brautnacht from Die Agyptische Helene

    Performer: Deborah Voigt, Helen, American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein


  • Shakespeare

    Intro to Troilus and Cressida (CH)

  • Image for Tippett

    Tippett Start of King Priam ("War! War!")

    Performer: London Sinfonietta, London Sinfonietta Chorus, David Atherton


  • W. H. Auden

    The Shield of Achilles (TM)

  • Image for Tippett

    Tippett O rich-soiled land from King Priam

    Performer: Robert Tear, Achilles, Timothy Walker, guitar, David Atherton


  • Cavafy (trans Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

    The Horses of Achilles (CH)

  • Image for Leonard Bernstein

    Leonard Bernstein Agathon from Serenade (after Plato's Symposium)

    Performer: Gidon Kremer, violin, Israel Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein


  • Plato (trans Benjamin Jowett)

    Agathon’s speech from the Symposium (TM)

  • Racine (trans by Robert Bruce Boswell)

    from Phaedra (CH)

  • Image for Benjamin Britten

    Benjamin Britten Start of Phaedra to "I want your sword's spasmodic final inch"

    Performer: Ann Murray, mezzo, ECO, Steuart Bedford


  • Goethe (trans Stephen Plunkett)

    Ganymede (CH)

  • Image for Schubert

    Schubert Ganymede

    Performer: Ian Bostridge, tenor, Julius Drake, piano


  • Yeats

    Leda and the Swan (TM)

  • Image for Igor Stravinsky

    Igor Stravinsky Prologue to Apollon Musagete

    Performer: Sinfonietta de Montreal, Charles Dutoit


  • Matthew Arnold

    Apollo Musagetes (TM)

  • Image for Richard Strauss

    Richard Strauss End of An dem Baum Daphne

    Performer: BBC Singers, Choristers of Kings College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury


  • Claire Higgins

    Claire Higgins

  • Tim McMullan

    Tim McMullan

  • Producer's Note

    The culture and mythology of Ancient Greece have inspired a wide range of writers and composers: the plays of the Elizabethan dramatists William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; the dramas of Racine during the 17th Century; Goethe; the Romantics Keats, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold; and in the 20th Century Yeats, Auden and Greece’s own Cavafy.

    Cavafy’s Ithaka and Tennyson’s Ulysses both, in different ways, explore the notion of The Journey. And their reference point is one of the central myths of ancient Greek culture, the journey of Ulysses/Odysseus back to his homeland of Ithaka after the end of the Trojan War as recounted in Homer’s great epic the Odyssey.

    And so we start this sequence with the famous opening to Homer’s Odyssey where the poet invokes the muse for inspiration and describes Ulysses/Odysseus (“the man of many devices”) as he sets out on his return journey. And before that, Keats, whose reading of Homer in the translations of George Chapman was a life-changing experience (“Much have I travelled in the realms of Gold”).
    [Ravel, Nicholas Maw and Duparc all describe the sun-lit Mediterranean of Greece and the excitement of travel in their music]

    It was the Greek king Menelaus’s wife, Helen who indirectly caused the Trojan War by running off with the Trojan Prince, Paris. Offenbach takes a sardonic view of the whole affair as the Greek kings and heroes march on in La Belle Hélène. But Christopher Marlowe and Richard Strauss allow themselves to be swept up in her overwhelming beauty.

    The introductions to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Tippett’s King Priam both catapult us into the broil of the Trojan War itself. In The Shield of Achilles Auden reflects bitterly on the differences between the Greek world as described by Homer—a world where, even amid warfare, imagination naturally ran to scenes of peace—and the world of totalitarian horror Auden himself imagines. At the same time, Auden criticizes Homer for attributing glory to warriors. Auden's moral opprobrium is directed, not at Thetis or Hephaestus, but at "the strong iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles." But, away from the battle we see a softer side of Achilles in his tent, as he fantasizes with his friend Patroclus about their life after the war has finished.

    The love of Achilles for Patroclus became one of the icons of male romantic love for the Greeks. Cavafy muses on The Horses of Achilles who are upset by the death of Patroclus and mourn the “eternal disaster of death”.

    The Agathon movement from Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) leads from the Cavafy to Agathon’s speech in praise of love from Plato’s Symposium.

    Ancient Greece seems to have been a very male-dominated society, with women definitely occupying a lower rung of importance. However Greek tragedy has given us some of the strongest female characters in world literature: Medea, Clytemnestra, Elektra and Phaedra whose obsessive sexual passion for the virginal Hippolytus ends in disaster (Racine, Britten)

    The Greek male by contrast could either have been all-male, all-conquering heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles; or at the other extreme they were chaste epicene youths such as Hippolytus or Ganymede (Goethe, Schubert)
    We come full circle with Yeats’s poem Leda and the Swan in which Zeus disguises himself as a swan in order to rape Leda who eventually gives birth to Helen whose elopement with Paris triggers the Trojan War

    The journey to Ancient Greece ends on the slopes of Mount Parnassus with Apollo, the Greek god of poetry inspiring the 9 muses (Stravinsky, Matthew Arnold). And the sequence fades away as Words and Music become one in the wordless conclusion to Strauss’s An dem Baum Daphne: Daphne transformed into a laurel tree by Apollo.

    Clive Portbury (producer)


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