Edith Hall
Edith Hall.

Edith Hall is Professor of Classics at King’s College London, and Co-Founder and Consultant Director of Oxford University’s Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama. She has published more than twenty-five books on classical civilisation and its continuing presence in modernity, including Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy (OUP 2013). She is the recipient of the Erasmus Medal of the European Academy and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Athens.


‘Nothing has ever surprised me so much’, wrote Mozart excitedly to his father after seeing Georg Benda's melodrama Medea in 1778.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau had invented the genre in his French melodrama Pygmalion, written in 1762. But it is Benda’s duodrama Ariadne auf Naxos and six-voice Medea, which both premiered at Gotha in 1775, commissioned and performed by the pioneering Seyler theatrical company, that stand at the head of the longstanding German tradition of poetic speech with instrumental accompaniment. It was to be developed in works not only by Mozart but by Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn (including two consequential adaptations of Sophoclean tragedy, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus), Schumann, Liszt, Schoenberg and Berg.

This lecture argues through a close analysis of Benda’s Medea, with its expressive libretto by the poet Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, that the ancient theatrical multimedial forms of tragedy and pantomime were formative in the creation both of this important experiment in exploring the subjectivity of ancient heroines through the recited word, and of the proto-Romantic stress on troubled emotions and their mirroring in elemental turbulence. The lecture concludes with some observations on the importance to the subsequent reception of the Medea myth in eastern Europe of the performance of Benda’s Medea in St Petersburg in 1781, at a time when Georgia (Medea’s original homeland) was seeking an alliance with Russia, as yet unaware that in 1801 Russia would abolish the Georgian state altogether.