This is what I thought, it’s an impossible task. That is till lately I saw a replica of the Seikilos Epitaph from 200 BC/100 AD found in Aydin, Turkey (see: Revealing ancient Greek music, the Seikilos Epitaph). Since then, I have come across many articles treating and analyzing this unique subject.
Remains of ancient Greek music are very scant, leaving the impression that music was not popular in ancient
is further from the truth since music then as now was all around, in theatres,
athletics, education and in everyday’s life to express joy or sorrow. Ancient Greek music has been brought
back to life thanks to, for instance, the achievements of the group LyrAvlos, a conjoinment of "lyra"
(lyre) and "avlos" (flute). The group made several appearances, among
which: The Athens Hall of Music and the Warsaw Opera shows, the Festival of Old
Music in Greece Stockholm and the Corcoran Gallery in , the
co-operation with the National Orchestra of Athens in the First Greek Musical
Celebrations, as well as at the 2004 Olympic Games. Washington
Stefos, the leader of Lyravlos worked hard to construct precise replicas of the old instruments to play the music from eons past. So far, 61 ancient songs have been saved, some on papyrus, others on shards or stone like the abovementioned Seikilos Epitaph. Such stones and papyri from
dating overall between 300 BC and 300 AD show a vocal notation consisting of
letters and signs placed above the vowels of the words. On top of that the
Greeks had worked out the mathematical rations of musical intervals, in which
an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2 and a fourth 4:3. Egypt
On the other hand, a musician and tutor in classics at
, Armand D’Angour,
reminds us that the epics of Homer,
the love-poems of Sappho and the
tragedies of Sophocles
originally were music. This means that pieces composed between 750 and 400 BC
were to be sung partially or in their totality, accompanied by the lyre,
reed-pipes, and some percussion instruments. Oxford
The oldest musical document discovered so far shows only a few bars from Orestes, probably written by Euripides himself in the 5th century BC. How Euripides exactly fits modern analysis is hard to figure out, but it is known that with the words “I lament” and “I beseech” he uses a falling, mournful cadence, while with the words “my heart leaps wildly” the melody is rising. It is astonishing to learn that Athenian soldiers earned their meals while singing Euripides during their captivity in the quarries of Syracuse in 413 BC - a moving detail reported by Plutarch. From Homer we know that in his days the bards used a four-stringed lyre, the “phormix” and we may assume that those strings were tuned to the four notes that survived in the later basic Greek scales.
Thorough analysis has proved that rhythms, for instance, are preserved through the words themselves, based on the short or long syllables of the words. The instruments are known from statues, paintings and literary descriptions, by which a musician amazingly is able to find the timbre and range of pitches they produced. It has been established that for instance, the letter A at the top of the scale represents a note that is a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can then be figured out based on the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.
Yet this music is very far away from our Western conception and comes closer to the sounds produced in
India or in the Middle East.
It seems however that instrumental practice from the ancient Greeks still
survives in some specific areas of Sardinia or . More technical details can
be found in the article “How did ancient Greek
music sound?” by Armand D'Angour. Turkey
Another interesting story is about a bit of papyrus found in a forgotten corner of the Louvre’s basement in 2002. It turned out to be a partition of Medea by Carcinos the Younger (approx. 360 BC) that was mentioned by Aristotle in his “Rhetoric’s” and in which the heroine, unlike in Euripides’ version, is innocent. So today we can listen to the bewitching aria sung in a deep voice as in antiquity the role of women was held by men. Annie Bélis, a world-renowned specialist in ancient music studied this papyrus and other bits and pieces; she now concentrates on performing both vocal and instrumental scores that have survived creating an ensemble called Kérylos. All the music partitions are authentic and the already known chorus score from Euripides’ Orestes, the Seikilos Song of the two Delphic Hymns to the Pythian Apollo, have been deciphered and reproduced in her musical works. Among them, there also is an excerpt from Aristophanes’ Birds (nothing to do with Hadjidakis’ interpretation), a paean by Mesomedes of Crete (favourite composer of Emperor Hadrian), a piece from Carcinos’ Medea mentioned above, and an anonymous paean to the stars to name just a few.
Annie Bélis is using carefully rebuilt lyres, kitharas, flutes and percussion instruments purely based on strict archaeological reference (statues, mostly of Apollo playing the lyre, and bits of instruments gleaned from different archaeological locations). So far she has performed with the Ensemble Kérylos in several countries, including
at the ancient theatre of Delphi.
More recently there was a special concert in Greece organized in the frame of the
Royaume d’Alexandre le Grand. La Macédoine Antique” in 2011. Sorry to
have missed it. More details can be found on the Kérylos site. Paris