MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Score to Ancient Greece

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Statue of Homer at the Bavarian State Library in Munich; photo by J. Williams

Oxford Classics scholar Armand D’Angour describes how researchers are on the verge of a breakthrough in being able to “reconstruct” the music that was known to have accompanied such seminal texts as the Homeric epics, the great tragedies, and Sappho’s lyric poetry:

The rhythms – perhaps the most important aspect of music – are preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables.

The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

He asks what Greek music would have sounded like:

Homer tells us that bards of his period sang to a four-stringed lyre, called a “phorminx”. Those strings will probably have been tuned to the four notes that survived at the core of the later Greek scale systems.

Professor Martin West of Oxford has reconstructed the singing of Homer on that basis. The result is a fairly monotonous tune, which probably explains why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition.

Filed under: classical literature, musical research

How Did We Get Virgil Wrong for So Long?


Madeline Miller reflects on how the standard reading of Virgil and the Aeneid as a pro-imperialist epic came into question:

The closest thing we have to a portrait of Virgil is an imperial-era mosaic, discovered in Tunisia. In the center sits a somber Virgil, with the Aeneid open in his lap, flanked by muses. On his left stands Clio, the muse of history; on his right, we might expect the muse of epic poetry, patron of Virgil’s chosen medium. Instead, the artist has given us Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. It is the perfect iteration of Virgil’s message to us: that history is more tragedy than triumph. For two thousand years it has been hiding in plain sight.

(Image: Virgil Flanked by Clio and Melpomene, 3rd-century mosaic from the Bardo Museum in Tunis)

Filed under: classical literature

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