‘Research into ancient Greek music is pointless’. Giuseppe Verdi.
Is it really so hopeless? During 2013-15 I conducted a research project (funded by the British Academy and Jesus College Oxford) to reconstruct the sound and significance of ancient Greek music. I travelled to countries where traditions that stem from ancient Greek pipe-playing, string-playing and melodic systems are still to be found in various forms. I’ve lectured widely on and written several scholarly articles about my findings, and hope to write a reasonably accessible book on the subject. The following is an outline of the project, and a 4-minute taster film gives an idea of how exciting it is.
At the root of all Western literature is ancient Greek poetry – Homer’s great epics, the passionate love poems of Sappho, the masterpieces of Greek tragedy and of comic theatre. But few people know or care that almost all of this poetry was or originally involved sung music, often with instrumental accompaniment. Imagine that all we knew of the Beatles songs – or the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Britten – were the words. Then after two millennia we had the means to rediscover what the music sounded like. We would be bound to recognise the huge difference the sound of music makes to the listeners’ minds and emotions. Imagine.
Music was as central to Greek life as it is to ours. Greeks believed that music had the power to captivate and enchant. In the case of the Sirens’ song, it could beguile listeners to their death. In the fifth century BC, the music of Athenian theatre was enjoyed by tens of thousands of listeners. Top performers were treated like pop stars. The piper Pronomos of Thebes was said, like Elvis himself, to have ‘delighted the audience with his facial expressions and the movements of his body’.
We are now in a position to reconstruct from surviving documents how Greek music actually sounded. By combining this knowledge with modern analogies and imaginative musicianship we may make a start at understanding why it was thought to exert such extraordinary power.
The principal components of Greek music — as of all music — were the voice, instruments, rhythms, and melodies. The instruments are well known from ancient paintings and surviving relics, some in excellent condition. Two main kinds of instrument, the double-pipe (auloi) and the lyre, were used to accompany song. In Sardinia we can still hear the penetrating sound of double pipes as played by maestro Luigi Lai, preserving an age-old tradition of pipe-playing that was said to have accompanied the devotees of Dionysus in their ecstatic dances. The sweet sound of plucked strings, which can still be heard in ancient tunings played on instruments such as the Turkish oud, empowered the minstrel Orpheus to entrance trees and subdue wild animals.
The complex rhythms of Greek poetry in terms are usually studied in terms of metre. This is treated a purely quantitative exercise, indicating the way syllables of long and short duration were arranged into familiar and repetitive patterns. But these patterns were also the basis of dance steps, which involved the rise and fall of dancers’ feat. There must have been a beat in addition to time durations, but where did it fall? Marks on stone and papyrus show how the beat fell in some cases of ancient rhythm, and help us to work out how the brilliant and intricate rhythms may have been danced.
Finally, we are now in a position to hear some of the melodies that were actually heard in ancient Greece. Until recently, people thought we knew nothing of ancient tunes. Scholarship has now accurately deciphered marks on stone and papyrus that reveal songs and scraps of tunes, some of which haven’t been heard for 2000 years. The latest of these pagan melodies, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, are audibly related to the sung music at the beginnings of the Western musical tradition as we know it, 9th-century Gregorian plainsong.
With care we may be able to reconstitute some of the sounds of ancient Greek music. By combining different aspects of scholarly expertise, we may perhaps attempt to recreate the sound of an ancient Euripidean chorus, or even to realise a haunting passage in Homer’s Odyssey – to hear the song the Sirens sang.