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.