October 25, 2013

Uncovering the sounds of Ancient Greek poetry


Apollo at his lyre

It is easy to forget that Ancient Greek tragedies and epics composed by writers such as Homer and Euripides were originally set to music. Consideration of this important aspect of these texts has not been helped by the fact that until now, we had no idea of how such music and songs would sound.

Armand D’Angour, a musician and Classics tutor at Oxford University is beginning to put this right, and has set about restoring the texts to their original musical accompaniments. Writing on the BBC Online, D’Angour tells how these texts “dating from around 750 to 400 BC … were composed to be sung in whole or part to the accompaniment of the lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments.”

But matching words to song hasn’t been a simple process. Although the rhythms are “preserved in the words themselves, in the patterns of long and short syllables” and classicists know what instruments were played from “descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains”, the correct pitch of sounds was not known until now.

Ancient documents have been discovered which include signs ‘placed above the vowels of Greek words’, and these are vocal notations, instructing the singer on the accurate pitch and tone of each utterance. Just like today’s music, each writer and their songs vary greatly from the next. While four lines from the writer Seikilos give a “haunting” sound, the reconstruction of Homer’s singing resulted in a “fairly monotonous tune” due to its musical accompaniment by a  “phorminx”, a four-stringed lyre with fairly limited range.  According to D’Angour, this probably explains “why the tradition of Homeric recitation without melody emerged from what was originally a sung composition”, and thus helps us to understand the progression from singing to reciting in the performance of literature.

While some surviving melodies still sound pleasing to our ears today, D’Angour warns that we “must set aside our Western preconceptions” when listening to the music, and think instead of non-Western folk traditions, like those of the Middle East and India. This new work of D’Angour’s is so interesting because it will reveal for the first time exactly how the texts we now regard as the beginnings of Western Literature really sounded to their original audience, and the true effects of their melody, rhythms and song.

As D’Angour puts it:

“suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics…Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.”

Listen to a song here.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.