Hear the World’s Oldest Surviving Written Song (200 BC), Originally Composed by Euripides, the Ancient Greek Playwright

Imag­ine if you will that it is the year 4515, and future peo­ple slow­ly begin exca­vat­ing the musi­cal remains of mil­len­nia past. Now add the fol­low­ing wrin­kle to this sce­nario, cour­tesy of clas­sics schol­ar Armand D’Angour: “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.” Would it be pos­si­ble to recov­er the rhythms and melodies from these scraps? Wouldn’t this music be for­ev­er lost to his­to­ry?

Not nec­es­sar­i­ly, D’Angour tells us; we could “recon­struct the music, redis­cov­er the instru­ments that played them, and hear the words once again in their prop­er set­ting.” Giv­en the inex­act, spec­u­la­tive nature of much ancient his­to­ry, I imag­ine the recon­struct­ed Bea­t­les might end up sound­ing noth­ing like them­selves, but then again, now that schol­ars have begun to recov­er the music of ancient Greek tragedy from a few frag­ments of text, sure­ly those future his­to­ri­ans could remake “Love Me Do”

Recon­struct­ing Don Gio­vani might be a lit­tle trick­i­er, and that’s often the scale aca­d­e­mics like D’Angour are work­ing with, since not only the love-poems of Sap­pho, but also “the epics of Homer” and “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.” This much we all like­ly know to some extent.

D’Angour goes on to describe in detail how schol­ars like him­self use “pat­terns of long and short syl­la­bles” in the sur­viv­ing verse to deter­mine musi­cal rhythm, and new rev­e­la­tions about ancient Greek vocal nota­tion and tun­ing to recon­struct ancient melody.


The ear­li­est sur­viv­ing musi­cal doc­u­ment “pre­serves a few bars of sung music” from fifth-cen­tu­ry trage­di­an Euripi­des’ play Orestes. A “noto­ri­ous­ly avant-garde com­pos­er,” Euripides—scholars presume—“violated the long-held norms of Greek folk-singing by neglect­ing word-pitch.” You can see the papyrus frag­ment above, writ­ten around 200 BC in Egypt and called “Katolo­phy­ro­mai” after the first word in the “stasi­mon,” or choral song. Above the words, notice the vocal and instru­men­tal nota­tion schol­ars have used to recon­struct the music. The lines describe Orestes’ guilt after mur­der­ing his moth­er:

I cry, I cry, your mother’s blood that dri­ves you mad, great hap­pi­ness in mor­tals nev­er last­ing, but like a sail of swift ship, which a god shook up and plunged it with ter­ri­ble trou­bles into the greedy and dead­ly waves of the sea.

This trans­la­tion comes from “Greek Recon­struc­tion­ist Pagan­ism” site Bar­ing the Aegis, who also describe the song’s rhythm, Dochmius, and mode, Lydi­an, with a help­ful expla­na­tion for non-spe­cial­ists of what these terms mean. They also fea­ture the live per­for­mance of the stasi­mon at the top of the post, just one inter­pre­ta­tion by Spy­ros Giasafakis and Evi Ster­giou of neo­folk band Dae­mo­nia Nymphe. Below it, hear anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion by Pet­ros Tabouris and Nikos Kon­stan­tinopou­los. And just below and at the bot­tom of the post are two more ver­sions of the ancient song.

Giv­en Euripi­des’ exper­i­men­tal­ism, we can’t expect that this recon­struct­ed song would be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of most ancient Greek music. “How­ev­er, we can rec­og­nize that Euripi­des adopt­ed anoth­er prin­ci­ple,” set­ting words to falling and ris­ing cadences accord­ing to their emo­tion­al import. As D’Angour puts it, “this was ancient Greek sound­track music,” and it was appar­ent­ly so well-received that his­to­ri­an Plutarch tells a sto­ry about “thou­sands of Athen­ian sol­diers held pris­on­er” in Syra­cuse: “those few who were able to sing Euripi­des’ lat­est songs were able to earn some food and drink.”

As for “the great­est of ancient poet-singers,” Homer, it seems accord­ing to recon­struc­tions by the late Pro­fes­sor Mar­tin West of Oxford that Home­r­ic tunes were “fair­ly monot­o­nous,” explain­ing per­haps why “the tra­di­tion of Home­r­ic recita­tion with­out melody emerged from what was orig­i­nal­ly a sung com­po­si­tion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Free Cours­es in Ancient His­to­ry, Lit­er­a­ture & Phi­los­o­phy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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