Music in Ancient Greece and Rome

John G. LANDELS, Routledge, 1999, 296 pp. Hb ISBN 0-415-16776-0

Review by Tony Urbainczyk


A contemporary of mine at university, now a Professor of Music, claimed that he had achieved his '0' level, , A ' level and his degree in music largely by reading Donald J. Grout's 'History of Western Music' .Did he ever read those 15 or so pages on Ancient Greek music, I wonder; I certainly didn't. Since then, however, I have battled with such engaging subjects as Pythagorean thirds, just intonation, commas etc., etc. with regard to violin intonation and to harpsichord tuning, and have encountered Greek rhythms in the music of Messiaen, a composer I greatly admire, but I have never gone back to those 15 pages. Until now.

Landels's book sets out to examine the practical aspects of music- making in Greece and Rome. There is not much at all about the philosophical aspects of music: speculation about morality, education, formation of character, and music of the spheres is largely missing. On the other hand there is a huge amount of detail about the instruments, the role of music, music in myth, explanations of scales, intervals and tuning, the rhythms of poetry,tI acoustics, notation and pitch. The climax of the book is along and r lr fascinating chapter on some of the very few surviving scores,! fragments which range from a few lines by Euripides (?) to the Il second century AD . t i r ,I

This is a beautiful book, but not a glossy one. There are no photographs, because 'there are a number of well-known vase-paintings which have appeared in almost every book written about ancient Greek music', but there is a large number of attractive line drawings. One of the strengths of this book is that it has no cumbersome critical apparatus, but I think that brief notes on the drawings would have been interesting -I suspect the author would merely accuse me of laziness! The notes that are there are concise, and there are (accessible) suggestions for further reading. There are also numerous helpful diagrams and tables, and of course, the musical examples. The first of these, sections from the two Delphic paians, are presented on two staves for some reason, and with the time signature repeated on every new line, they look rather peculiar. Later ones are all notated up the octave (with the clear statement, 'one octave lower than written') and I cannot see any reason why the earlier ones could not have been written in the same way. This, though slight, is probably my biggest complaint.Much more important, however, is the style of the writing. It has a lightness of touch which makes one want to read on, whatever the occasional complexity of the topic under discussion. The book is wide-ranging, but gives the impression of the author at ease with all his material, a true enthusiast, throwing in the odd aside and confident enough to use colloquialisms when the mood suits him. He is disarmingly modest about his own translations, which he has expertly created to fit with the original Greek rhythms. There is no need to be so apologetic about such workmanly lines! His modesty is revealed elsewhere: one of the most engrossing and illuminating sections is left until the last appendix, Appendix 3, which describes his original research into the Brauron aulos.

The book starts with an overview: music was everywhere in ancient Greece. The public music of the great religious festivals, the dithyrambs to Dionysos, the Pythian Games, Pindar's odes and the private music of the symposion with the amateur lyre-player and the aulos-playing high-class prostitute are all described. Also discussed are the epics of Homer, the lyric poetry of Sappho and Alkaios, and the use of music and the role of the chorus in tragedy, comedy and the satyr-drama. Landels believes that roughly a third of the Ion of Euripides, for example, would have been taken up with singing or chanting.Next come descriptions of the instruments. The aulos is dealt with first, with lots of historical detail and expert analysis of how it was played, what it sounded like, and even the construction of the reeds. It seems that the same plant is used today for reed-making, and the reeds cut in Southern France are still kept for 2-3 years, just as the Greeks did. Pronomos of Thebes is credited with inventing a device which enabled the player to change the basic pitch of the instrument easily; we have already seen him in the previous chapter, seated centre stage in a satyr-drama, and it is o cross-references like this which make the book a constant delight. There follows an equally detailed discussion of the kithara, Apollo's own instrument, and then other instruments, the syrinx, plagiaulos, harps, brass and percussion instruments, are given briefer sections.

Chapter 3 is entitled 'Scales, Intervals and Tuning' and much of the argument is based on Aristoxenos, a pupil of Aristotle. Aristoxenos' Harmonics is the oldest extant musical treatise, and, while the structure of the tetrachords and 'systems' are clearly explained, the (theoretical?) size of the intervals is left in the air somewhat, Landels admitting the writer's shortcomings. However, Pythagorean ratios are not that hard to understand -I have a ten year old violin-pupil who understands that you need different sized 'semitones' to playa modern day chromatic scale. Some marriage here with the Pythagorean method of using ratios derived from the harmonic series to describe intervals would have been interesting to me, though it is possible to work some of them out using other sections of the book, including Appendix 1. (There is a small misprint here, in the table: the value given for the Pythagorean third, 81:64 should be 408 in cents.) There is a lot to digest here, with further sections on 'tonoi' and the old scales, 'harmoniai' , which Plato talks about. It seems that the only two that he felt were acceptable were almost identical.

There then comes a chapter on pitch and accentuation in the Greek language, and how the highest natural pitch of a syllable is reflected in the highest note when set to music. Various poetic rhythms are presented: dactyls, spondees, anapaests in choral song, cretic (beloved of Messiaen), the glorious syncopation suggested by Anacreon's Ionic lines with anaklasis, dochmaic. Landels finally gives in when a possible variant of this last one causes problems, saying 'I have reached a stage of my scholarly career when I am at liberty to put forward heretical views, and I would suggest ... that choros singers ... simply did a bit of fudging here and there.' The chapter ends with an analysis of two strophe/antistrophe pairs of stanzas from Sophocles' Antigone, comparing metre and pitch patterns, with some fascinating conclusions about how they may have been set to music.

After a chapter on acoustical science, where Pythagoras' discoveries are discussed, (thankfully, the apocryphal story about the blacksmith's hammers is knocked on the head), and Ptolemy's description of a monochord is presented in detail, there follows a chapter on 'Music and Myth'. This spends some time unravelling the Orpheus and the Marsyas myths, before dealing more briefly with 'invention' myths about the syrinx and Hermes' invention of the lyre.

The next two chapters are on Alexandria and Rome. Another myth is dispelled -Julius Caesar did not set fire to the library! Over 30 pages are devoted to the 'Roman Musical Experience', a subject that is often passed over 'in a few disparaging sentences'. We hear about the hydraulis (water-organ), Plautus' chorus, Vitruvius' theatre acoustics, the quality of Nero's voice and his musical antics. It appears that as far as the Romans were concerned, it was the Greeks who were the musicians, and with that came the suggestion that they were 'effeminate and disreputable'.

There follows a fairly technical chapter on notation and pitch, which prepares us for the real music presented in Chapter 10. In this, most space is devoted to the fairly extensive 1st and 2nd Delphic paians, dating from 128/7 BC, with a theory on how the first may have been accompanied on the kithara. Then, among the rest, there are some enchanting tunes: Seikilos' epitaph, from the Ist century AD, 'Invocation to a Muse', and three compositions by Hadrian's Greek court musician, Mesomedes, 'Invocation to Kalliope', and Hymns to the Sun and to Nemesis. Then, delightfully, come four fragments that are clearly instrumental studies: one of them is a set of permutations of four notes that I use myself when practising the violin!

I cannot resist a final word on the Brauron aulos. After all this talk about erudite matters such as diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic tetrachords and pykna (groups of three notes -a main note on the aulos for example with two 'in-between' notes obtained by partially lifting the finger), Landels's research reveals that this particular aulos has approximately c' d' f' g' a' and c" as its main notes -an absolutely straightforward pentatonic scale, the building block of most 'World Music'. How reassuring! This doesn't stop Landels from expertly deducing that it 'was a 'Phrygian' aulos, which played in the Phrygian harmonia in the Hypophrygian aulos key of g, transposing up an octave from notation'.

For those who are interested in the Greeks and in music this is a valuable book, full of insight. The author wears his scholarship lightly, his enthusiasm for his subject is quite infectious, and I cannot help feeling that this is a highly personal book, since, as well as having infinitely expanded my knowledge I seem to have ended up knowing the author quite well, too. It all makes Grout feel rather dry.

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