The Sirens’ Song

– The Sound of Ancient Music

In this short video, professor D’Angour gives a lively introduction to the subject covered in more detail by the article that follows. Video courtesy of professor D’Angour and producer Steve Crabtree.

What song did the Sirens sing? As a classicist and trained musician, the idea of knowing the sound of ancient Greek music long fascinated me, but when I looked into the scholarship as a student I found it technical and unrewarding. In 1983 I sat the exams for the All Souls Prize Fellowship, and at the viva in a room packed with Fellows, Isaiah Berlin asked me ‘Since you’re a musician, aren’t you interested in investigating ancient Greek music for a few years?’ I replied ‘The evidence is too slight for an extended investigation’. After a shocked silence, one of the Fellows coldly observed ‘All the more reason to do it, you might think’. Having failed to impress the Fellowship, I embarked on a career as a cellist.

Hymn to Apollo, text and musical notation. Delphi Archaeological Museum.
Hymn to Apollo, text and musical notation. Delphi Archaeological Museum.

My assessment of the situation was brash and incorrect. Scholars have since pulled together the evidence for ancient instruments, rhythms, melodies, and musical theory, and in his Ancient Greek Music (OUP 1992), Martin West provided a set of transcriptions into modern musical notation of the  principal surviving melodies. Anyone with a basic musical training can now attempt with relative ease to hear how dozens of ancient Greek songs might have sounded. But what difference to the appreciation of the poetry might the original melodies have made, in conjunction with their complex and often offbeat rhythms, and the sounds of lyres and reed-pipes? In October 2013 I embarked on a two-year project, supported by a British Academy Fellowship and sabbatical leave from Jesus College, to recover the sounds of Greek music and to try to answer this question. In pursuit of my inquiry I shall be visiting Greece, Sardinia, and Turkey on the trail of surviving ancient musical traditions, and collaborating with experts from many countries on instruments, dance, and ancient musical texts.

Detail, highlighting the musical notes.
Detail, highlighting the musical notation.

The material is enhanced by the fascinating musical notation invented by Greeks in the mid-fifth century BC, details of which are preserved for us by the late antique author Alypius. Consisting of letter-forms placed over the vowels of words to indicate their relative pitch – letter A, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N – the vocal notation preserves a faithful record of ancient melodies. Absolute pitch can be approximated from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes, supplemented by measurements taken on ancient instruments. Texts using this notation have been known since the late sixteenth century, when some pieces of Greek music on papyrus were published by the musician Vincenzo Galilei (father of the more famous Galileo). Since then around 50 documents have been discovered on papyrus or stone inscriptions, providing a small but precious corpus that allows us to understand something of how ancient Greek melodies were heard and how the rhythms were realised.

Imagine a situation in which all we had of five centuries of Western opera were the libretti, and only a few fragments of the music. Such a situation is more or less that of students who engage with the poetry of classical Greece, which covers around five centuries from 800 to 300 BC. The poets who composed the Iliad and Odyssey, the love poems of archaic Lesbos, the victory odes of the early fifth century BC, and the choral passages of Greek tragedy and comedy, all composed the words to be sung and accompanied by musical instruments. Yet little attention is paid nowadays even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the aegis of Greek metre; and even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists is something on which we are now in a position to exercise an informed scholarly imagination. By neglecting the aural dimension, readers of ancient texts are bound to be missing something of the original aesthetic impact of these songs.

Western-trained musicians need to set aside our presuppositions about music. We are the heirs of over a thousand years of refinement – and in some areas simplification and standardisation – of the forms and structures underlying Western music. Since one feature of ancient Greek music was the use of quarter-tone intervals, a better parallel may be with the music of the Middle East. The principal instruments used to accompany the voice, the lyre and the reed-pipes (auloi), are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains; but the musical texts indicate that the Greeks of classical times used very different kinds of rhythm and melodization from those with which we are familiar. To understand what the music meant to ancient listeners requires a broad ethnomusicological approach and a sympathetic ear for non-Western musical traditions.

The ancient Greek language was intrinsically musical. It was tonally inflected, with the syllables of words rising and falling in pitch. A large proportion of the surviving melodies conforms in profile to these word pitches; but in the earliest substantial musical document that survives, comprising a few lines of sung music from Euripides’ Orestes (thought to represent music that Euripides himself composed), the melody deviates from word-pitch. Euripides was a notoriously avant-garde composer, and this may indicate one way in which his music was heard as wildly modern in his time. The fragment seems instead to indicate a kind of ‘programme music’: the words ‘I lament’ and ‘I beseech’ are set to a falling, mournful-sounding cadence, and when the singer exclaims ‘my heart leaps in frenzy’, the melody appears to leap by a musical fifth. The huge appeal of Euripides’ new music is indicated by a moving story in Plutarch about the Athenians imprisoned in Syracusan quarries in 413 BC after their disastrous campaign to conquer Sicily. Those who could sing Euripides’ latest songs to their captors were able to earn food and drink and even to save their lives.  The reconstruction of ancient music may not solve the puzzle of the Sirens’ Song; but if it helps us learn something of the original sound and appearance of a tragic chorus, it will justify the British Academy’s and Jesus College’s support of my return to the kind of inquiry that over thirty years ago Isaiah Berlin hoped I would undertake at All Souls.

Dr. Armand D’Angour, Jesus College, Oxford. Reprinted courtesy of the author.