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.

The problem is that few people aside from classical scholars have known that this material exists, and those scholars, not having been trained as musicians or musicologists, have had very little interest in it. Students of music, for their part, are almost never classicists with a strong grounding in such arcana as papyrology and epigraphy. Scores of ancient Greek music are almost completely inaccessible to them, except in often inaccurate modern transcriptions.

Yatromanolakis aims to bridge the gap. He has degrees in the classics from the University of Athens (B.A.) and Oxford University, in England (M.A., Ph.D.). He recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and has just finished a three-year appointment to Harvard's distinguished Society of Fellows—a sort of incubator for exceptional young academics from all disciplines. He also happens to be a lifelong student of the history and the historical performance of music; a fan of classical Chinese music and world music; a composer in his own right; and a practicing countertenor who also plays the piano, the classical guitar, the sitar, and an ancient Greek plucked instrument called the cithara.

I asked Yatromanolakis if he could show me some examples of what he has been working on. He rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a photograph of a stele, originally from Asia Minor, that now resides in a museum in Denmark. On the stele, chiseled in bold Greek letters, is the complete score of a funerary song ordered inscribed by a certain Seikilos, who lived sometime in the first or second century. At a glance the inscription appears to be nothing but text, but closer inspection reveals smaller Greek letters and signs perched above some of the words, and a series of dots and lines hovering above these letters. The small letters, Yatromanolakis told me, represent the notes, and the lines are rhythmic symbols. There was apparently no need to specify tempo, which may have been suggested by the poetic meter of the text.

I asked Yatromanolakis if he would sing the piece for me. He stared at the score, focused hard for a couple of seconds, and then, to the surprise of those seated around us, proceeded to sing a brief, quietly beautiful song. It sounded at once familiar and alien. I was acutely aware of not fully understanding what I was hearing, but I also experienced an almost Jurassic Park-like shiver of excitement at the thought that I was witnessing something extinct being brought back to life.

After finishing the song, Yatromanolakis blushed and told me that his goals include producing a CD of the first "historically informed" performances of all surviving pieces and organizing public performances of ancient Greek music—first using only voice (the instrument, he pointed out, that has changed least over time) and then adding carefully re-created ancient instruments. When pressed about which professional classical and pop performers might, with training, be able to do the material justice, Yatromanolakis suggested that the star Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor would be "perfect." He also whimsically floated the idea of the Icelandic pop star Björk.

Hearing these thoughts made me wonder aloud whether there will ever be a time when we might experience Greek drama in something like its original musical form. "This is not likely," he told me gravely, shaking his head. "We just don't have enough material." Then he brightened and leaned toward me, somewhat conspiratorially. "But, you know, it is not impossible," he said. "Especially if new papyrus fragments come to light. In the twentieth century we found new Euripides and Sophocles, in Egypt. New Sophocles, after all those centuries! So why not new music? If we found the whole score of a Greek tragedy—can you imagine?"