See Ancient Greek Music Accurately Reconstructed for the First Time

Imag­ine try­ing to recon­struct the music of the Bea­t­les 2,500 years from now, if noth­ing sur­vived but a few frag­ments of the lyrics. Or the operas of Mozart and Ver­di if all we had were pieces of the libret­tos. In a 2013 BBC arti­cle, musi­cian and clas­sics pro­fes­sor at Oxford Armand D’Angour used these com­par­isons to illus­trate the dif­fi­cul­ty of recon­struct­ing ancient Greek song, a task to which he has set him­self for the past five years.

The com­par­i­son is not entire­ly apt. Schol­ars have long had clues to help them inter­pret the ancient songs that served as vehi­cles for Home­r­ic and Sap­ph­ic verse or the lat­er dra­ma of Aeschy­lus, almost all of which was sung with musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment. In a recent arti­cle at The Con­ver­sa­tion, D’Angour points out that many lit­er­ary texts of antiq­ui­ty “pro­vide abun­dant and high­ly spe­cif­ic details about the notes, scales, effects, and instru­ments used,” the lat­ter includ­ing the lyre and the aulos, “two dou­ble-reed pipes played simul­ta­ne­ous­ly by a sin­gle per­former.”

But these musi­cal instruc­tions have proved elu­sive; “the terms and nota­tions found in ancient sources—mode, enhar­mon­ic, diesis, and so on—are com­pli­cat­ed and unfa­mil­iar,” D’Angour writes. Nonethe­less, using recre­ations of ancient instru­ments, close analy­sis of poet­ic meter, and care­ful inter­pre­ta­tion of ancient texts that dis­cuss melody and har­mo­ny, he claims to have accu­rate­ly deci­phered the sound of ancient Greek music.

D’Angour has worked to turn the “new rev­e­la­tions about ancient Greek music” that he wrote of five years ago into per­for­mances that recon­struct the sound of Euripi­des and oth­er ancient lit­er­ary artists. In the video at the top, see a choral and aulos per­for­mance of Athanaeus’ “Paean” from 127 BC and Euripi­des Orestes cho­rus from 408 BC. D’Angour and his col­leagues break in peri­od­i­cal­ly to talk about their method­ol­o­gy.

In the 2017 inter­view above from the Greek tele­vi­sion chan­nel ERT1, D’Angour dis­cuss­es his research into the music of ancient Greek verse, from epic, to lyric, to tragedy, to com­e­dy, “all of which,” he says, “was sung music, either entire­ly or part­ly.” Cen­tral to the insights schol­ars have gained in the past five years are “some very well pre­served auloi,” he notes, that “have been recon­struct­ed by expert tech­ni­cians” and which “pro­vide a faith­ful guide to the pitch range of ancient music, as well as to the instru­ments’ own pitch­es, tim­bres, and tun­ings.”

Deter­min­ing tem­po can be tricky, as it can with any music com­posed before “the inven­tion of mechan­i­cal chronome­ters,” when “tem­po was in any case not fixed, and was bound to vary between per­for­mances.” Here, he relies on poet­ic meter, which gives indi­ca­tions through the pat­terns of long and short syl­la­bles. “It remains for me to real­ize,” D’Angour writes, “in the next few years, the oth­er few dozen ancient scores that exist, many extreme­ly frag­men­tary, and to stage a com­plete dra­ma with his­tor­i­cal­ly informed music in an ancient the­ater such as that of Epi­dau­rus.” We’ll be sure to bring you video of that extra­or­di­nary event.

via The Con­ver­sa­tion

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Hear Homer’s Ili­ad Read in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

Intro­duc­tion to Home­r­ic Greek 

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

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  • Dennis Tuckerman says:

    How can you know how Ancient Greek was spo­ken or even sound­ed?
    A long, long time ago when I did Latin at a Boy’s Gram­mar School we were told that nobody real­ly knew how Latin was spo­ken — our Latin Mas­ter hat­ed the term ‘Dead Lan­guage’.

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