Notes from Antiquity

Watching a play by Euripides or reading poetry by Sappho is perhaps as incomplete an experience today as watching a "play" by Wagner or reading "poetry" by Stephen Sondheim would be

Dimitrios Yatromanolakis studies early classical music—the really early stuff. Over lunch recently, in a café not far from his office, at Harvard University, I asked him to describe what he's most interested in. "I should spell out something in advance," he said almost apologetically. "When I say 'musicians,' I often mean poets. Euripides. Aristophanes. Sappho. And when we talk about 'musical scores,' what we are talking about, of course, are papyri, parchments, and stones."

Yatromanolakis is a thirty-two-year-old classicist from Greece who has in recent years devoted much of his time to the somewhat lonely task of trying to study, reconstruct, and perform actual pieces of ancient Greek music. It's a rigorous and unconventional scholarly enterprise that requires expertise in fields as varied as anthropology, archaeology, iconography, music theory, paleography, poetic and dramatic traditions, and—of course—the classics.

Greek poets and dramatists regularly set their work to music themselves, and from at least the fifth century B.C. on they used a highly sophisticated system of musical notation. The very idea of poetry, in fact, originally tended to imply music, and Athenian tragedy at its artistic peak, in the fifth century B.C., was a complex combination of poetic text, solo and choral song, recitation with instrumental accompaniment, and dance. This has an unsettling if little-recognized implication: watching a play by Euripides or reading poetry by Sappho is perhaps as incomplete an experience today as watching a "play" by Wagner or reading "poetry" by Stephen Sondheim would be.

Yatromanolakis is an earnest, soft-spoken man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and dresses with the rumpled formality that one somehow expects of a classical scholar. "You know those amazing sculptures that we think of when we think of ancient Greece?" he asked me. "These were not completely white, of course. That's mainly our projection. It's the same with ancient Greek poetry—we project a lot onto it. A lot. We analyze it in a very text-oriented way. But music was deeply embedded in ancient Greek life; the evidence for this is abundant. Really, we can't understand ancient Greek culture—and this is our culture, to a certain degree—without understanding the function of its music."

For centuries now the received wisdom among classicists has been that the actual melodies of ancient Greek music (as opposed to literary references and iconographic material) vanished, irretrievably, long ago. Trying to resurrect the surviving pieces—the existence of which is generally known only to a few specialists—has been viewed as, at best, an entertaining but frivolous distraction from more-mainstream work. Attempts have nevertheless been made in recent decades, the best known and most significant of which are Musiques de l'Antiquité Grecque, a 1993 recording produced by the Ensemble Kérylos under the direction of the French archaeologist Annie Bélis, and Musique de la Grèce Antique, a 1979 recording by the Spanish musician Gregorio Paniagua. Neither is a rigorous, nuanced work of scholarship, however. The Bélis recording uses anachronistically modern vocal styles and makes little attempt to contextualize the music, and the Paniagua recording is a highly impressionistic rendering by a musician with no training in the classics.

Yatromanolakis is undaunted by the skeptics. "Sure, we have lost most of this music," he told me. "However, there is so much we have lost from all fields of antiquity. What makes it acceptable, for instance, to study religion in antiquity but not music? In both cases the scholarship has to be at least somewhat hypothetical. We can't be absolutely sure about all of our results, of course. We don't even know how medieval music was performed, but we still do perform it all the time. And, you know, so many people are studying the smallest text fragments we have from Sappho—just a few words—but almost nobody is studying in any depth the pieces of music that have been preserved. We have pieces, for example, from a Cretan composer named Mesomedes. Complete pieces of ancient music!"

About sixty examples of ancient Greek music are extant. Some twenty of them, including a fragment from Euripides' Orestes, are well enough preserved to be studied fruitfully and, Yatromanolakis believes, performed with a considerable degree of accuracy. In addition, there are abundant ancient Greek literary references to music, among them descriptions of various instruments and their tunings, of the role that music played in secular and religious life, and of the influence that music was said to have on both individuals and the body politic; most significant are elaborate treatises that explain the system of musical notation and the various intervals, scales, and modes on which it was based.

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