The Sound of Ancient Greece Reconstructed
A musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University has been bringing back to life the music of ancient Greece , unheard for thousands of years, using a combination of archaeology and historical documents.
Armand D'Angour has explained that in ancient Greece the classic texts and theatre used music – the epics of Homer, the love-poems of Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were all, originally, music.
These well-known classics, dating from around 750 to 400 BC were all composed to be sung in whole or part to the accompaniment of the lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments. The instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which enables researchers to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.
As for the rhythm, the clue lies within the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables. In addition, the researchers have gained an accurate indication of relative pitch by examining numerous ancient documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.
One complete piece, inscribed on a marble column and dating from around 200 AD, is a short song of four lines composed by Seikilos. The notation is unequivocal and marks regular rhythmic beats. The words of the song may be translated:
While you're alive, shine,
never let your mood decline.
We've a brief span of life to spend,
Time necessitates an end.
Dr David Creese of the University of Newcastle has reconstructed the Seikilos piece, playing a zither-like instrument, which you can listen to here. When he plays two versions of the Seikilos tune, the second immediately strikes us as exotic, more like Middle Eastern than Western music. The ancient rhythmical and melodic norms were quite different from our own.
Perhaps one day it will be possible to watch one of the ancient classic plays in its original form, accompanied by the rediscovered instruments and to hear the words once again in their proper setting as the Greeks had done thousands of years ago.