The dithyramb (Ancient Greek: διθύραμβος, dithurambos) was an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility; the term was also used as an epithet of the god: Plato, in The Laws, while discussing various kinds of music mentions "the birth of Dionysos, called, I think, the dithyramb." Plato also remarks in the Republic (394c) that dithyrambs are the clearest example of poetry in which the poet is the only speaker.
Plutarch contrasted the dithyramb's wild and ecstatic character with the paean. According to Aristotle, the dithyramb was the origin of Athenian tragedy. A wildly enthusiastic speech or piece of writing is still occasionally described as dithyrambic.
Dithyrambs were sung by choruses at Delos, but the literary fragments that have survived are largely Athenian. In Athens, dithyrambs were sung by a Greek chorus of up to fifty men or boys dancing in circular formation (there is no certain evidence that they may have originally been dressed as satyrs) and probably accompanied by the aulos. They would normally relate some incident in the life of Dionysus.
The ancient Greeks themselves counted among the special criteria of the dithyramb its special rhythm, its aulos accompaniment in Phrygian mode, its highly-wrought vocabulary, its considerable narrative content, and its originally antistrophic character.
Competitions between groups singing and dancing dithyrambs were an important part of Dionysiac festivals such as the Dionysia and Lenaia. Each tribe would enter two choruses, one of men and one of boys, each under the leadership of a coryphaeus. The results of dithyrambic contests in Athens were recorded, with the names of the winning teams and their choregoi recorded, but not the poets, most of whom remain unknown. The successful choregos would receive a statue that would be erected—at his own expense—as a public monument to commemorate the victory.
The earliest mention of dithyramb found by Sir Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, is in a fragment of Archilochus, who flourished in the first half of the seventh century BCE: "I know how to lead the fair song of the Lord Dionysus, the dithyramb, when my wits are fused with wine." As a literary composition for chorus, their inspiration is unknown, although it was likely Greek, as Herodotus explicitly speaks of Arion of Lesbos as "the first of men we know to have composed the dithyramb and named it and produced it in Corinth".
The word dithyramb is of unknown but probably non-Greek derivation. The form soon spread to other Greek city-states, and dithyrambs were composed by the poets Simonides and Bacchylides, as well as Pindar (the only one whose works have survived in anything like their original form).
Later examples were dedicated to other gods, but the dithyramb subsequently was developed (traditionally by Arion) into a literary form. According to Aristotle, Athenian tragedy developed from the dithyramb; the two forms developed alongside one another for some time. The clearest sense of dithyramb as proto-tragedy comes from a surviving dithyramb by Bacchylides, though it was composed after tragedy had already developed fully. As a dialogue between a solitary singer and a chorus, Bacchylides' dithyramb is suggestive of what tragedy may have resembled before Aeschylus added a second actor.
In the later 5th century BCE, the dithyramb "became a favorite vehicle for the musical experiments of the poets of the 'new music'." This movement included the poets Timotheus of Miletus, Cinesias, Melanippides, and Philoxenus of Cythera. By the 4th century BCE the genre was in decline, although the dithyrambic competitions did not come to an end until well after the Roman takeover of Greece.
Dithyrambic compositions are rare in English; one notable exception is John Dryden's Alexander's Feast (1697). The title is similarly uncommon in Western classical music, notwithstanding a number of notable examples. Franz Schubert wrote a song for bass voice (D 801, published in 1826) on a text Dithyrambe, by Friedrich Schiller (1796). Friedrich Nietzsche composed a set of Dionysos-Dithyramben in 1889. Nikolai Medtner composed several dithyrambs, including a set of three for solo piano as his Opus 10; additionally, the final movement of his first violin sonata carries the title, and the last of his Vergessene Weisen Op. 40 is a Danza ditirambica. The last movement of Igor Stravinsky's Duo Concertant for violin and piano is entitled Dithyrambe. Wolfgang Rihm composed a 30-minute work, Concerto, in 2000, with the subtitle Dithyrambe and a scoring for string quartet and orchestra. In 1961 the American choreographer James Waring created a dance piece entitled Dithyramb with music and objects by the Fluxus artist George Brecht.
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