Several years ago, I was browsing through the Archaeological Museum of Dion after having explored the nearby Macedonian sanctuary and Roman city. It is a lovely little museum but what truly impressed me was the water-organ that stood on the first floor and was visited by only a handful of tourists. It was so recognizable as an organ that I even suspected that this reconstruction could be too far away from reality.
It was during excavations outside the beautiful Villa of Dionysus at Dion in 1992 that archaeologists discovered a row of pipes together with large copper slabs bearing the imprints of pipes. After further examination in the on-site laboratory, they were able to establish that these pipes belonged to a water-organ. It turns out to be the oldest surviving musical instrument of its kind and it has been dated to the 1st century BC, making it 2,200 years old!
The ancient Greeks called it a ‘hydraulis’ which made its first appearance in Alexandria. The first ‘hydraulis’ was built by Ctesibius and operated by compressed air that was channeled through a container of water to equalize the pressure. A row of pipes of different length produced the sound and by adding more pipes a polyphonic effect could be obtained. What an invention!
The arrival of the water-organ was received with great success because of the powerful and pleasant sound it produced, making it a favorite instrument in theaters, hippodromes, and at other public gatherings. Eventually, it entered into the Roman Imperial court. The Byzantines improved the organ and managed to make it function without using water. The amazing fact is that this ‘hydraulis’ is the ancestor of our church organ since the Middle-Ages.
Ancient music and more specifically Greek music is an intriguing subject which I tackled in earlier blogs (see: Reconstructing ancient music, an impossible task? and An insight into Ancient Greek Music). The history of this ‘hydraulis’ as another interesting contribution to this chapter.
The good news is that we will be able to listen to ancient Greek water-organ music at a live event - that is, if you have the opportunity to travel to
this summer. The Acropolis
Museum is organizing a free concert with quite an interesting program that looks as follows: Athens
An introduction to the history of the ‘hydraulis’ and the discovery of the elements in Dion will be given by Professor Pandermalis. After that, the audience will be treated to a virtuoso recital on the ‘hydraulis” by the famous Greek organist, Ourania Gassiou. The concert will end with a special harp recital by harpist Thodoris Matoulas.