epitaph of seikilos

Music History (Part 6): Ancient Greek Music

There are around 45 fragments & pieces of Ancient Greek music surviving, from the 400’s BC to the 300’s AD.  Most of them are from later periods, when Ancient Rome was dominating Greece, and are composed to Greek texts.  Their notation uses letters placed above the text to indicate pitch, and other signs to indicate note durations.

The earliest pieces are two chorus fragments from plays by Euripides, a Greek tragedian who lived from 481 – 407 BC.  The music was probably written by Euripides himself.

The other fragments & pieces are more complete.  They include two Delphic hymns to Apollo (the second is from 128-27 BC); the Epitaph of Seikilos, inscribed on a tomb stele in Tralles, near Aydin in southern Turkey (00’s AD); and four hymns by Mesomedes of Crete (100’s AD).  All these pieces show consistencies with Greek writings on music.

The Epitaph of Seikilos used marks to show when the basic rhythmic unit should be doubled or tripled.  The melody is diatonic, and covers an octave in range.  It uses the Phrygian octave species (TST TTST), and the Iastian tonos (the modern transcription has transposed it up a step).

Its text tells us to be lighthearted, but also acknowledges death, and the music reflects this balancing of extremes.  The Iastian tonos is in the middle of the 15 tonoi, suggesting moderation; the ethos is also moderate, with the rising 5ths & 3rds that begin most lines being balanced by the falling gestures at the end of each line.

The Stasimon Chorus from Euripides’ Orestes is written on a papyrus scrap from around 200 BC.  Unfortunately, only the middle portion of each of the seven lines has survived.  The notation uses the diatonic genus, and also either the chromatic or enharmonic genus.  Instrumental notes are interspersed with the vocal notes.  These two traits are mentioned in descriptions of Euripides’ music, so it was probably written by him.  It is a choral ode.

In it, the women of Argos beg the gods to have mercy on Orestes, who has murdered his mother Clytenmestra for being unfaithful to his father Agamemnon.  The poetry uses the dochmiac foot, a rhythmic pattern that is used in Greek tragedy for passages of intense agitation and grief.  The long-short pattern is — — — ‿ — ‿.

This ethos is shown in the music through small chromatic/enharmonic intervals, sudden register changes, and truncated lines that are filled in with instrumental notes.

Musical fragment from the first stasimon of Orestes (lines 338-44).

These pieces of music show the role of instruments in supporting vocal music; music imitating ethos; the importance of poetic rhythm and structure in shaping the melodic line; and the use of all three genera, as well as notation, tonoi and octave species.

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While you live, shine

Don’t suffer anything at all;

Life exists only a short while

And time demands its toll

Time to get ancient!

The Epitaph of Seikilos is a song that was found engraved on a gravestone in Ancient Greece (around Aidin, Turkey) and has been dated to the period between 200 BCE and 100 AD. It is the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, which is awesome! A lot is unknown about music in Ancient Greece, but we know that they had a sophisticated manuscript for music notation and have discovered a few instruments that have been played. Music in Ancient Greece was by and large a means to tell stories, and as such instrumental music wasn’t held in very high regard compared to vocal music. As we don’t have a clue how Ancient Greece was pronounced or how the music was performed, this is an educated guess at what the Epitaph of Seikilos sounded like. I hope you guys enjoy this piece of awesome music history!


anonymous asked:

In ancient Greek hymns, they often seem to open with, "Now I sing of..." Were these hymns ever actually put with music or chanted/recited a capella? Do we know what that music and/or melody sounded like?

Yes, they were absolutely put to music! In fact, pretty much all poetic texts from the ancient world were originally sung. This was even the case with the Iliad and the Odyssey; Homer himself was said to be an ἀοιδός, a bard, from the verb ἀείδω, to sing.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of melodies from the ancient world were written on papyrus, parchment or transmitted orally, and are now lost. Among those that remain, few are complete; the oldest is the Seikilos Epitaph, inscribed on a tomb from the 1st century BC/AD. When it comes to hymns in particular, a few have been preserved. These are:

Ancient writers also left us a number of treatises on music, which enable us to understand ancient musical theory to some extent. There are many books by modern scholars on the topic. I’d recommend Martin West’s Ancient Greek Music (1992), which is becoming a bit dated, but is still an excellent overview.

Lastly, depictions on pottery and in sculpture, as well as a few rare archeological finds, help us to reconstruct the instruments themselves. The most common were wind instruments (aulos, pan flute) and string instruments (harp, lyre, kithara). Various kinds of percussion were also used. Michael Levy has a fantastic YouTube channel where he plays replicas of these instruments: here he is playing the kithara, the harp, the phorminx, and the barbiton. This Roman-era song features an aulos.

There are several modern musicians and groups who use Ancient Greek instruments and draw inspiration from Ancient Greek music. I personally recommend the following songs:

All of the above artists are also Greek themselves, with the exception of Bettina Joy de Guzman, which adds a special something to the music, I think :)

Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος
εἰμί. Τίθησί με
Σείκιλος ἔνθα
μνήμης ἀθανάτου
σῆμα πολυχρόνιον.

Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.

Σείκιλος Εὐτέρ[πῃ]


Seikilos Epitaph (c. 1st century CE)

“I am an image, a stone. Seikilos placed me here: a long-lasting token of undying memory.

While you live, shine.
By no means at all grieve.
Life exists only for a short while:
Time requires its completion.

Seikilos for Euterpe.”

anonymous asked:

Can you share some music those of Greco-Roman faith might find interesting?

We know the instruments that were available in antiquity, we know the tonal ranges that were used, we have a treatise on harmony by Aristoxenus dating to circa 300 B.C.E., and we have scrolls with musical notation - but, frustratingly, we don’t really know what ancient music sounded like. Was it heavy on percussion? Were there extensive improvisational elements? Now that more musicians are getting interested in researching and recreating ancient musical instruments, more music is becoming available for those interested in ancient Greece and Rome.

Michael Levy is a musician and composer who researches and recreates the ancient playing-techniques of the lyres of antiquity. He has recorded more than a dozen cds with music of the Roman lyre and the lyres of Ancient Greece. Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elERNFoEf3Y

LyrAvlos is a five-member ensemble founded in 2001 by Panayiotis Stefos. The group focuses on recreating the music of ancient Greece on a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments..I haven’t been able to find any of their cds for sale, but  a number of MP3s and videos are available on their web site.

Synaulia is a team of musicians, archeologists, paleorganologists and choreographers dedicated to the application of their historical research to ancient music and dance, in particular to the ancient Etruscan and Roman periods. Their music has been used extensively in documentaries, film, and television, including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and the Rome and Empire television series. The group currently has produced two cds of music from ancient Rome. Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMYBJE19mSY&list=PLwuCQZRLWPU4G1F09NmvOio2UDvlWLaa3

I own a copy of Somnia Imperii, Roman music composed by David Marshall and played on reconstructed instruments by Praecones Britanniae. Some tracks would be good for processions, and others are more mediational in nature, background music, if you will.  Samples are available at the website.

Corvus Corax, one of my all-time favorite bands, was founded in 1989. Their focus is on medieval music, played on a variety of instruments reconstructed by members of the group. Cantus Buranus (2006, 2009) and Cantus Buranus II (2008) feature love and drinking songs in Latin from the medieval Carmina Burana manuscript, many with references to Greek and Roman deities. (I posted a video of a concert presentation of O Varium Fortuna here) Their cd Seikilos is based on the oldest completed musical composition ever discovered, a Hellenistic melody and lyrics in ancient Greek notation, found near Ephesus in 1883. Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP-4vF5JYxk (Note: Seikilos is currently on sale for $7.50 U.S. here.) 

Tanzwut, an offshoot of Corvus Corax, is an industrial metal band with a medieval theme and heavy use of bagpipes. They also have a occasional songs with Latin lyrics and mythological references, such as Caupona and Fatue on their 2003 cd Ihr Wolltet Spaß and Tanzwut Live cd/dvd (2004). Hearing the crowd sing along in Latin almost makes me feel as if the Empire never fell! Listen:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5Bz4VgAr_w

Musica Romana, founded in 2001, focuses on music of ancient Greece and Rome. Members of the group have written extensively on ancient instruments and notation, and have produced two cds of music: Pugnate and Symphonia Panica. Links to samples are available at the website.

Do you have favorite music from ancient Greece and Rome? Please share links!

The epitaph of Seikilos really got stuck in my mind now.

Just think of it, someone creating a piece of art in memory of another’s person death (or rather, life?). In this case, not really for eternity, but for a freaking long time and he just put the words and music in stone. It’s simple as that and worked. I wonder if he really thought that now, 2000 years later, I can listen to this. What would he have thought if he could have looked into the future and seen my reaction?
Did he himself create the music? If not, who did? If yes, I wonder how he felt and what he was thinking of when he came up with the song. I may have no idea of who Euterpe is but I’m enjoying the song for her so much. It almost feels a bit like I’m dishonouring the song by just letting it run on repeat as background music as I type this. I don’t know anything about the person this song was made for. It’s sad that she probably never heard it herself. Imagine this being completely normal - everyone who dies gets an epitaph song to remember them by. It’s like gaining a new name by dying, only that you never find out about this name.

I’m rambling and you probably think it’s a bit silly but I’m just wowed.


Last weekend, two other musicians and I performed ancient music at the Nuit Antique festival in Geneva. The melodies came from Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Greece and Asia Minor; some were completely preserved, and others fragmentary. The video above is of the two oldest pieces, both written down in the 2nd millennium BC.

The scale of Lipit-Eshtar is excerpted from a Mesopotamian tablet with instructions on how to tune a lyre. It is the oldest known musical notation, dating back to the reign of Lipit-Eshtar, king of Isin, in the 20th century BC, in what is now southern Iraq.

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal (which I recorded with Hurrian text in a previous video) is the oldest known melody, composed around the 14th century BC in Ugarit, now Ras Shamra, Syria. Understandings of the musical notation vary widely; here I used Richard Dumbrill’s interpretation as a basis.

Another song we performed is the Seikilos Epitaph, which you can find here (I previously shared an a capella recording, with Greek text and translation, here). The Seikilos Epitaph is the oldest known entirely preserved tune; it was inscribed on a gravestone near Ephesus around the 1st century AD.