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.