The Eternal City
Texts and music about everyday life in ancient Rome, with readings by Sian Phillips and Peter Marinker. Includes Pliny, Juvenal and Dickens, plus Wagner, Orff, Rota and Respighi.
Sian Phillips and Peter Marinker with words and music about everyday life in Ancient Rome including texts by Pliny, Juvenal, Dickens, Henry James, Mark Twain, W.H Auden & Kipling. And music by Wagner, Carl Orff, Nino Rota, Stephen Sondheim, John Williams, Respighi, Allegri, Berlioz, Britten and Puccini.
Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
Joachim du Bellay, trans. Edmund Spenser
Who List the Roman Greatness Forth to Figure (Ruins of Rome No 26), reader Sian Phillips
Pliny, trans. John B. Firth
The Letters of Pliny the Younger Series 1/Vol 1/Letter XV/To Septicius Clarus, reader Peter Marinker
Imperial Purple from Conjectural Rome (excerpt), reader Sian Phillips
Juvenal, trans. George Gilbert Ramsay
Satire 4 (excerpt), reader Peter Marinker
Unto Caesar (excerpt), reader Sian Phillips
The Spirit of Rome: The Catacombs (excerpt), reader Peter Marinker
Pictures from Italy (excerpt), reader Sian Phillips
Italian Hours: A Roman Holiday (excerpt), reader Peter Marinker
The Innocents Abroad (excerpt), reader Sian Phillips
Antinous (excerpt), reader Peter Marinker
W. H. Auden
Roman Wall Blues, reader Sian Phillips
The Roman Centurion's Song, reader Peter Marinker
This programme aims to conjure up everyday life in ancient Rome through the eyes of authors both ancient and modern. Below I have sketched in some of the reasons for my music choices.
Bellay’s poem describes the heroic grandeur of Rome. And no one does heroic grandeur better than Wagner whose first operatic success, Rienzi, was set in Rome.
Our first ancient Roman author, Pliny, is known for his colourful and gossipy letters which give us a vivid account of everyday life in the capital. Here he berates a friend for standing him up for supper and proceeds to list the opulent dishes that he would have been served.
Catullus wrote some of the most erotic and sensual poetry in Latin or any other language. The Carl Orff extract starts with a famous 2 line poem that encapsulates the agony and ecstasy of love – and has never been improved upon:Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
(I hate and I love. Why do I do it, perhaps you might ask?
I don't know, but I feel it happening to me and I'm burning up.)
The American Edgar Saltus wrote highly refined prose in the style of Oscar Wilde. Here he conjures up a late Romantic vision of Roman luxury and decadence. Cue Wagner again, whose vision of a flawed and meretricious Valhalla could also describe the Rome of Augustus.
The final Latin poet in this section is the scabrous Juvenal whose Satires pull no punches. The misogynistic 4th Satire is a larger-than-life take on Roman womanhood.
Nina Rota’s score to Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, captures the self-indulgent, glittery world of Rome in the 1950s, and seems to fit the sleazy tone of the Juvenal.
Stephen Sondheim and Frankie Howerd satirize this outdated male view of women in the musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The Baroness Orczy is another period piece. She made her name with historical fiction that is both racy and melodramatic. In this extract she describes the gruesome scene where Caligula’s pet panther is let lose on a couple of Christians in the amphitheatre. She paces the action with a cinematic technique that cries out for the Technicolor pageantry of Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur) and the blood-chilling double-basses of John Williams (Jaws).
After the kill, we descend into the catacombs where Vernon Lee describes the emptiness and desolation he feels contemplating the remains of Rome’s early Christians.
A brief diversion into tourist mode. First up, Dickens who is distinctly underwhelmed by St Peter’s but curiously moved by the ruins of the Coliseum.
Henry James is disappointed that Roman Carnivals just aren’t what they used to be. And Mark Twain has had it up to here with Michelangelo.
For me the piece of music that conjures up Rome more than any other comes in the brief orchestral Prelude to Act 3 of Puccini’s Tosca. As dawn breaks over Castel Sant’Angelo (aka the Mausoleum of Hadrian) a shepherd boy sings of love as the bells of Rome ring for matins. Puccini is very particular in the score about the different sizes of off-stage bells to be used at various points in the music. And this famous Decca recording captures it perfectly.
The melancholy mood of the Puccini leads us into the rain-sodden meditation of the Emperor Hadrian as he weeps over the corpse of his lover the impossibly handsome and epicene Antinous.
Hadrian leads to thoughts of “Rome” being a political concept that extends well beyond modern Italy. At Hadrian’s Wall, Auden’s soldier makes the familiar complaint about British weather. By contrast, Kipling’s centurion is sad to be called back to Rome.
The programme ends with Respighi’s epic soundscape in which he describes the Roman legions marching back to Rome along the Appian Way.
Producer: Clive Portbury