Imagine if all that remained of Western opera and pop songs 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. 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.
‘Research into ancient Greek music is pointless’ was the verdict of no less estimable a musician than Giuseppe Verdi. But the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs have long been studied (in the forbidding terminology of ‘Greek metre’). Less attention is paid to melodic structures, but thanks to some dozens of surviving notated fragments, as well as voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists, these too merit consideration by an informed musical imagination. The ancient Greek language was intrinsically musical, since it was tonally inflected, and the late M.L. West used this fact as the basis for reconstructing the singing of Homeric epic (8th century BC). Most surviving melodies conform in profile to these word pitches; but in the earliest musical document that survives (image above right), containing a few lines of song from Euripides’ play Orestes and likely to represent his own music, the melody deviates from word-pitch. The fragment instead indicates a kind of ‘programme music’, with the words for ‘I lament’ set to a falling mournful cadence, and the phrase ‘your heart leaps in frenzy’ accompanied by the upward leap of a musical fifth.
Ancient musical instruments included the lyre and the double-pipes (auloi, depicted above left), which can be reconstructed with some fidelity from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains. A feature of early Greek music was the use of quarter-tone intervals, for which the music of the Middle East and India offers parallels. With the support of the British Academy and Jesus College, I have conducted research into reconstructing ancient musical sounds. In 2013-15 my ethnographic and textual investigations, interviews with performers of pipes and lyres, and consultations with a range of experts, yielded important insights; and on 16 July 2016 a concert at the British Museum brought together experts and musicians from around the world for the first ever research-driven concert of ancient Greek music. There is much further to go, and new avenues for research have been opened. We can now set aside Verdi’s damning verdict and begin to do justice to some of the rich and varied musical sounds of the ancient Greek world.