Can we know what music sounded like in Ancient Greece?


EXCERPT: . . . Theoretical treatises indicate that the earliest Greek music (700-400 BCE) featured ‘enharmonic’ intervals smaller than a semitone, a practice that gave way around 400 BCE to the wholesale use of whole-tone and semitone intervals. In 1886 the philologist Rudolph Westphal declared that ‘the Greeks’ non-diatonic music that admits intervals smaller than a semitone, which are wholly foreign to the modern art, will probably, alas, remain for ever an enigma to scholarship’. Accordingly, historians long dismissed the notion that Western European music had its roots in Ancient Greece. Instead, the consensus was that it derived from the Gregorian plainsong of the 9th century CE, which in turn allegedly arose from the music of Hebrew liturgy. More than a thousand years of Greco-Roman music seemed to have left little trace on posterity – in retrospect an unlikely notion, but one barely questioned.

A papyrus fragment published in 1892, with music from Euripides’ tragedy Orestes (408 BCE), posed a vexing challenge because of its use of quarter-tones. New analyses of the fragment from 2012-16, however, led to striking breakthroughs. First, it was recognised that the music uses a falling melody to indicate dejection, and an interval leap to accompany the notion of ‘leaping’. This mimetic use of melody is not universal – it is not found, for instance, in Far Eastern music – but is a marked feature of the European musical tradition. Secondly, it was recognised that if the microtonal intervals were understood as ‘passing-notes’, the harmonic structure of the piece was no less tonal (as the ancient sources implied) than the 2nd-century BCE hymns of Athenaeus or Limenius, which employ only whole-tone or semitone intervals. Thirdly, an Ancient Greek commentator had noted that at the climax of the verse the chorus shouted rather than sang the words ‘terrible toils!’ – a striking effect known today as Sprechstimme.

With these considerations in mind, the Orestes papyrus was reconstructed and performed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in July 2017. In 408 BCE, it would have been sung as part of Euripides’ tragedy by a 15-man choir accompanied by aulos, and its realisation makes for a piece of thrilling and impressive music. A film of the performance (together with other ancient music) has attracted huge popular interest, with almost 100,000 views online.

Scholars are finally in a position to propose that Ancient Greek music is likely, after all, to be at the root of Western music...


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