It’s been a humanist truism for some time to say that Shakespeare speaks to every age, transcending his time and place through the sheer force of his universal genius. But any honest student first encountering the plays will tell you differently, as will many a seasoned scholar who works hard to place the writer and his work in historical context. Even onetime director of London’s National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, once said, “I’ll admit that I hardly ever go to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays without experiencing blind panic during the first five minutes. I sit there thinking… I have no idea what these people are talking about.”
Of course, none of that means we can’t learn to appreciate Shakespeare, and we do not need a graduate-level education to do so. But much of his archaic language and obscure references will always sound foreign to modern ears. How much more so, then, the language of the ancient Greeks, whether in translation or no? Although we’ve also been taught to think of the Homeric epics as containers of universal truth and beauty, the world of Homer was, in many ways, an alien one—and the literature of ancient Greece was far closer to song than even Shakespeare’s musical speeches.
In fact, “before writing was generally known among the Greeks,” the University of Cincinnati notes, “poets recited and sang stories for audiences at the courts of city leaders and at festivals. A poet could actually improvise a tale in the six-beat rhythm of Greek verse if he knew the plot of his story.” We do not know whether Homer was one enterprising scribe or “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were collected” under one name. But in either case, that poet or poets heard the tales of Hector and Achilles, Odysseus and Penelope, and all those meddling gods sung before they wrote them down. Now, thanks to Georg Danek of the University of Vienna and Stefan Hagel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, we have some idea of what those songs may have sounded like.
“In the course of the last years,” write Danek and Hagel, “we have developed a technique of singing the Homeric epics, which is appropriate for the primarily oral tradition from which these poems emerge.” The two scholars caution that their theoretical recreations are “not to be understood as the exact reconstruction of a given melody, but as an approach to the technique the Homeric singers used to accommodate melodic principles to the demands of the individual verse.” Accompanied by a four-stringed lyre-like instrument called a phorminx, “the Homeric bard” would improvise the “melody at the same time as he improvised his text, which was unique in every performance.” In the audio above, you can hear Danek and Hagel’s melodic recreation of lines 267-366 of book 8 of the Odyssey, in which Demodocus sings about the love of Ares and Aphrodite.
At their site, the two scholars present an abstract of their Homeric singing theory, with musicological and linguistic evidence for the recreation. Their technical criteria will confuse the non-specialist, and none but ancient Greek speakers will understand the recording above. But it brings us a little closer to experiencing Homer’s epic poetry, “the foundation stones of European Literature,” as the ancient Greeks might have experienced it.