During my recent visit to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam for their exhibition about Horses and their Riders, I was quite surprised to see a piece of a column engraved with Greek letters and in between the lines some strange characters that were labeled as musical notes. I thought nothing was known about ancient Greek music, leave alone their inscription in stone!
From the explanatory label I learned that this column, actually a copy of the original now in Copenhagen, was discovered in 1883 near Aydin in Turkey. It was called the Seikilos Epitaph, dating variously from 200 BC to 100 AD making it the oldest surviving example of musical composition in the world. Well, how do you like that!
The stone had a life of its own after its discovery. It had been entrusted to the museum of Smyrna as Izmir was called then, until the city was destroyed during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and was lost. At some later time it was found in a Turkish garden where it served as support for a flower pot. To make it fit his needs, the Turkish owner had ground down the bottom part, erasing the last line of the epitaph. Eventually it made its way to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
The ancient Greek text on this tombstone reads "Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος εἰμί.Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον" meaning “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance”.
I find it extremely exciting to read such a personal message enhanced with its own music. It seems that as early as the 4th or 3rd century BC, Greek professional composers and choir leaders had developed a musical system. Texts of theater plays, however, were often copied without music as the singers would learn the tunes by listening to them rather than reading the very notes. In any case, this means that this epitaph showing the lyrics together with the music is a very unique piece.
While you live, shine,
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ•
have no grief at all;
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν,
life exists only for a short while,
τὸ τέλος ὁ xρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.
and time demands its toll.
The last two words on the column read Σείκιλος Εὐτέρ[πῃ], Seikilos Euter[pei] which means “(from) Seikilos to Euterpe”, whereby Seikilos dedicated this song to Euterpe who was probably his wife. Amazingly the song has been “re-edited” and can now be heard on this YouTube video.
Digging a little further in this fascinating subject, I learn that older Greek music notations do exist (for instance, the Delphic Hymns) but all what remains are fragments. The Seikilos Epitaph is the only full song we have. However, there are bits and pieces that reached us on cuneiform tablets going back as far as 2,000 BC and also extracts of Chinese court music from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) which is supposed to be the exact copy of the melodies performed during the preceding 16 centuries – yet none can be proved.
During the last exhibition on Alexander the Great in Paris, the Louvre organized an evening of ancient Greek music. Annie Bélis, member of the French School in Athens, spent many years reconstructing antique musical instruments and researching papyri and inscriptions for musical notes. I must admit I was rather sceptical at first as the French like to show off, but there seems to be true value to her study.
This leaves me with an entirely new field to be investigated.