Ancient Greek music: now we finally know what it sounded like (cc reprint)

[originally by Dr. Armand D’Angour for the Conversation]

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Armand D’Angour, University of Oxford

In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett reported to an audience at the Royal Musical Association in London the words of an unnamed professor of Greek with musical leanings: “Nobody has ever made head or tail of ancient Greek music, and nobody ever will. That way madness lies.”

Roman mosaic with aulos player.
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Indeed, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma. Yet music was ubiquitous in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from around 750BC to 350BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho, and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance. Literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used. The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so as to sound like two powerful oboes played in concert.

Despite this wealth of information, the sense and sound of ancient Greek music has proved incredibly elusive. This is because the terms and notions found in ancient sources – mode, enharmonic, diesis, and so on – are complicated and unfamiliar. And while notated music exists and can be reliably interpreted, it is scarce and fragmentary. What could be reconstructed in practice has often sounded quite strange and unappealing – so ancient Greek music had by many been deemed a lost art.

An older reconstruction of ancient Greek music.

But recent developments have excitingly overturned this gloomy assessment. A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated stunning insights into how ancient Greeks made music. My research has even led to its performance – and hopefully, in the future, we’ll see many more such reconstructions.

New approaches

The situation has changed largely because over the past few years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archaeology Project. Played by highly skilled pipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instruments’ own pitches, timbres, and tunings.

Central to ancient song was its rhythms, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the metres of the poetry. These were based strictly on the durations of syllables of words, which create patterns of long and short elements. While there are no tempo indications for ancient songs, it is often clear whether a metre should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical chronometers, tempo was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential if music is to sound right.

Apollo plays the lyre.
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What about the tunes – the melody and harmony? This is what most people mean when they claim that ancient Greek “music” is lost. Thousands of words about the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation first came to light in Florence in the late 16th century. But this evidence for actual music gave no real sense of the melodic and harmonic riches that we learn of from literary sources.

More documents with ancient notation on papyrus or stone have intermittently come to light since 1581, and now around 60 fragments exist. Carefully compiled, transcribed, and interpreted by scholars such as Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance of understanding how the music sounded.

Ancient Greek music performed

The earliest substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus from the Athenian tragedian Euripides’ Orestes of 408BC. It has long posed problems for interpretation, mainly owing to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which have seemed to suggest an alien melodic sensibility. Western music operates with whole tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds to our ears as if a note is being played or sung out of tune.

Musical fragment from Orestes by Euripides.
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But my analyses of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, led to striking insights. First, I demonstrated that elements of the score clearly indicate word-painting – the imitation of the meaning of words by the shape of the melodic line. We find a falling cadence set to the word “lament”, and a large upward interval leap accompanying the word “leaps up”.

Second, I showed that if the quarter-tones functioned as “passing-notes”, the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a pitch to which the tune regularly reverts). This should not be very surprising, as such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music from later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeans preserved on stone.

With these premises in view, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral realisation with aulos accompaniment, setting a brisk tempo as indicated by the metre and the content of the chorus’s words. This Orestes chorus was performed by choir and aulos-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, together with other reconstructed ancient scores.

It remains for me to realise, in the next few years, the other few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to stage a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theatre such as that of Epidaurus.

The ConversationMeanwhile, an exciting conclusion may be drawn. The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century AD. But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music has demonstrated that ancient Greek music should be recognised as the root of the European musical tradition.

Armand D’Angour, Associate Professor in Classics, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Armand D’Angour and the Sound of Greek Music

Dr Armand D’Angour — he of Olympian Ode fame — has an interesting research project in the works:

Dr Armand D’Angour, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Jesus College, has embarked on a two-year research project, part-funded by the British Academy, to reconstruct the songs and music of the classical world.

Piecing together the lyrics, rhythms, instrumentation and notation through the painstaking study of ancient documents, he aims to show that the music is not lost beyond recovery.

Dr D’Angour said: ‘Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles’ songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi’s operas were the words and not the music.

‘Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.

‘This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.’

He added: ‘It is often forgotten that the writings at the root of Western literature – the epics of Homer, the love-poems of Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides – were all, originally, music.

‘Dating from around 750 to 400 BC, they were composed to be sung in whole or part to the accompaniment of the lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments.’

The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of the music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow scholars to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

Dr D’Angour said: ‘The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals: an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

‘The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.

‘While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists – some were published as early as 1581 – in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds. Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.’

But it is important to remember, according to Dr D’Angour, that ancient rhythmical and melodic norms were different from our own.

He said: ‘We must set aside our Western preconceptions. A better parallel is non-Western folk traditions, such as those of India and the Middle East.

‘Instrumental practices that derive from ancient Greek traditions still survive in areas of Sardinia and Turkey, and give us an insight into the sounds and techniques that created the experience of music in ancient times.’

He added: ‘Some of the surviving melodies are immediately attractive to a modern ear. One complete piece, inscribed on a marble column and dating from around 200 AD, is a haunting short song of four lines composed by Seikilos. The words of the song may be translated as: “While you’re alive, shine: never let your mood decline. We’ve a brief span of life to spend: Time necessitates an end.”

‘The notation is unequivocal. It marks a regular rhythmic beat, and indicates a very important principle of ancient composition.

‘In ancient Greek the voice went up in pitch on certain syllables and fell on others – the accents of ancient Greek indicate pitch, not stress. The contours of the melody follow those pitches here, and fairly consistently in all the documents.’

… Dr Armand gives another account in BBC’s business section (!): How did ancient Greek music sound?

Lyre of Hermes

About once a year we hear of someone reproducing this or that ancient instrument. This time around, it’s the so-called “Lyre of Hermes”, which is the lyre you often see depicted on Hellenistic pottery.

Dixit Serkan Çelik (a lecturer at Ege University Turkish Music Conservatory):

“Some depictions were not too clear, that’s why we had some problems during the process. While reproducing the instrument, we used natural materials and brought it to life back. Its sound box was made from tortoise shells and strings from intestines.”

“We are the first ones to produce this instrument. Another example was reproduced by French musicologist Belis but that instrument’s sound box was created from wood rather than tortoise shell, so the one we produced is closer to the original.”