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'Let’s hear ancient Greek music!'

Anna Stanisz

Prof Armand D’Angour tells Arts Blog about the power, excitement, and drama of ancient Greek music

Thinking about ancient Greek poetry and drama, we tend to overlook a very important aspect. 'All the great poetry, from Homer through to the lyric age, and the great Greek tragedians – most of that was music,' says Professor Armand D'Angour. It was sung, played, and even danced.

Armand D’Angour is a Professor in Classical Languages and Literature (Faculty of Classics) at Jesus College. Formerly a professional cellist, he is currently engaged on a project to reconstruct ancient Greek music.

'I try to bring together all the different elements,' he says. 'My particular expertise is in ancient metre and rhythm. The rhythms are quite complicated and their names are quite off-putting, so my approach is to say "Let’s just hear what we’re talking about".'

Experts on ancient music theory have long understood the general principles of Greek melody. 'Ancient Greek has a natural melody - there was a pitch change on different syllables of words,' says Prof D'Angour. Ancient documents confirm that song melodies generally imitated the natural rising and falling pitch of words.

Prof D’Angour is working on scores and literary texts preserved on papyri and stone with musical notation above the words. 'When you have an ancient text, very often it’s got bits missing, but because we know the rhythms, we can conjecture what was in the gaps,' he explains. 'So also with the music.'

The ultimate goal is not an ‘accurate’ reconstruction, which is not only impossible but would misrepresent what ancient Greek music was like. 'Music was mostly orally transmitted. It wasn’t written down, it wasn’t recorded,' says Prof D'Angour. 'You cannot ‘recapture’ any single performance, and they were all different. Music was variable, but within the framework of an idiom.'

'What I'm trying to do is understand the musical idiom of ancient Greece – the general melodic and rhythmic principles of music. I want to say: Look, this isn’t the way it was sung, but this accords with the prevalent melodic idiom. If ancient Greeks heard it now, they would understand it to be their kind of music.'

It is not that an understanding of ancient Greek music and musical notation has ever really been lacking. Thanks to treatises like that of Alypius (5th century AD), following on the Elements of Harmony by Aristoxenus of Tarentum (4th century BC) and Harmonics by Ptolemy (2nd century AD), we know what the signs mean and how the modal systems worked. What Prof D’Angour is doing is trying to make coherent musical sense of what we have.

Now that there is music to play, Prof D’Angour’s reconstructions can be performed with a whole chorus and the two main instruments that were used in ancient Greece: lyre (or kithara) and double pipes (aulos). 'We don’t have any archaeological records of lyres, because they were made from wood and animal gut which perished,' he says.

But from ancient vase painting and descriptions in texts we can tell more or less what the size, shape, and look they would have had. 'We can then make them and play them.'

We tend to talk as if there was just one kind of Greek music, but in fact 'there were hundreds of different kinds of music'. And it was as ubiquitous as it is now: you could hear it in the home, in the temple, in the theatre. 'And of course ancient authors tell us what effect it had: it was moving, it sounded tragic, it was joyful or triumphant,' says Prof D'Angour.

Ancient Greek conservatives like the philosopher Plato thought that the kind of music you listened to affected your character. “Popular” music wasn’t beautiful, therefore it was bad. However, it could be effective, exciting, sublime. 'It wasn’t beautiful according to traditional canons of beauty.'

Looking at contemporary times, Prof D'Angour notes that 'the same aesthetic debate was going on: is beauty the criterion of goodness in art and music? Music is also about power, excitement, drama, which may be no less important.'