25.10.13

How did ancient Greek music sound?



"The epitaph of Seikilos" performed by Newcastle University's David Creese

"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.
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. 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.
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.
The earliest musical document that survives preserves a few bars of sung music from a play, Orestes by the fifth-century BC tragedian Euripides. It may even be music Euripides himself wrote. Music of this period used subtle intervals such as quarter-tones. We also find that the melody doesn't conform to the word pitches at all. Euripides was a notoriously avant-garde composer, and this indicates one of the ways in which his music was heard to be wildly modern: it violated the long-held norms of Greek folk singing by neglecting word-pitch. However, we can recognise that Euripides adopted another principle. The words "I lament" and "I beseech" are set to a falling, mournful-sounding cadence; and when the singer says "my heart leaps wildly", the melody leaps as well. This was ancient Greek soundtrack music."

P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510.
Hear a rendition of the 2 songs by Christopher Brunelle,
Asst. Professor of Classics at Vanderbilt University.
Song A and Song B. (Quicktime needed)

Sources:
- Armand D'Angour
- io9
- William A. Johnson 1
- William A. Johnson 2
- William A. Johnson 3
- Ancient Greek Music, a new technical history by Stefan Hagel

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