Seeking the Sirens’ Song.

That’s the title of a piece Armand D’Angour posted a couple of years ago, describing research into ancient Greek music. It starts with a terrifying anecdote about his viva at Oxford (we called them “orals” at Yale, and I used to have nightmares about them), then goes on to the discoveries made by Martin West and others:

Thanks to these publications, any classicist with a basic musical training can now attempt with (relative) ease and confidence to hear how dozens of ancient Greek songs might have sounded. The fascination of this material is enhanced by the astonishing 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 – a letter A, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than an N – the vocal notation preserves a faithful record of ancient melodies. Absolute pitch, by the way, 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 of since the late 16th 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 rhythms realised. […]

Yet little attention is paid even to the rhythms so carefully inscribed into the words of these songs, which have long been known and studied under the forbidding aegis of Greek metre. Even less attention is paid to melodic structures, which thanks to the surviving fragments – as well voluminous writings by ancient authors and musical theorists (admirably translated and compiled by Andrew Barker in Greek Musical Writings) – 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.

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.

I’ve got work to do, so I’m not going to go down what no doubt will be a time-consuming rabbit hole of investigating what has been learned since then, but of course I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who knows. Thanks to Lars for the link!

Comments

  1. “I immediately realised that I had failed to impress, and shortly thereafter I embarked on a career as a cellist.” The context makes all clear, but the image of the cello as something to be adopted only in an attitude of resignation is rather comic.

    Note that All Souls is a weird place even by Oxbridge standards: all the students already have B.A.’s, and the oral examination comes when you apply for a fellowship, not when you are about to get your degree.

  2. From D’Angour’s home page it looks like scholarly publication of results is not right around the corner — “The project will continue for years to come as new evidence comes to light and instruments are reconstructed.”

    There are some dead links to radio interviews, but I tracked down Should Troy have been a musical on NPR where he sings a few bars — hearing is believing.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    LH, thank you for posting this. It makes me regret that I never studied Greek (the prof having told my mother that I did not have the necessary gift of imagination).

    JC, the author was already a cellist when he took the exam. He adopted a career as a professional cellist, rather than as a Greek scholar also playing the cello.

  4. John Roth says:

    Speaking of ancient musical traditions that have recently come to light, I ran across Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura’s controversial work on the Hebrew Bible. The entire text of the Lenengrad Codex has been encoded as music, using a computer program to apply her rules to the accents (the ones written under the letters). I’m not a musician, but I’m told it’s quite different from the cantilation you’d hear in a synagogue.

  5. m-l: Yes, I was only talking about the comic effect of the sentence taken out of context.

  6. @m-l: It’s funny – when I was 12 or so I bought some Latin books on a whim; I soaked up the declensions and conjugations almost immediately, and although I’ve never studied the language formally, I find it easy to progress in it when I care to. But when I approached Classical Greek a few years later, I was scared off by the verbs and the pitch accent and I’ve never really returned to it.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    I am not sure what “pitch accent” refers to and have not felt like looking it up. Does it mean that stress is not more forceful but indicated by higher pitch? Is it absolutely necessary to be aware of it? After all, I was taught Latin for years in France but was never made aware that stress might be important!, or even that it existed! It was just not mentioned, whether in prose or poetry – we pronounced Latin as if it were Standard French. I learned Latin stress on my own when I got into Romance phonology.

  8. Well, Latin had an unremarkable stress accent as far as I’m aware. But ancient Greek had a more complicated pitch-based accent akin to those of modern Serbo-Croatian or Lithuanian (I think), for which the so-called polytonic orthography – with acutes, graves and circumflexes – was introduced.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Ancient Greek, like modern Lithuanian and BCSM and Slovene and Shanghainese, was a pitch-accent language in the sense that it had two different kinds of stressed syllables; these differed in pitch (or pitch contour). Thus, in addition to the position of the stress in the word, the pitch of the stressed syllable was phonemic…

    …in a few cases. The phenomenon was actually quite restricted in Ancient Greek: long vowels and diphthongs could carry high (perhaps rising) or falling pitch, and this distinction (spelled as acute vs. circumflex) was phonemic. There are ancient mockeries of rhetors who put so much emotion into certain words that they got the pitch contour wrong and ended up saying different words.

    All other pitches were predictable: short vowels under primary stress had high pitch (acute) by default, any vowels under secondary stress (often found in prepositions) had low pitch (grave), and so did all other vowels (not spelled out classically – but when the polytonic orthography was invented, every unstressed vowel was marked with a grave accent at first).

  10. I visited Armand when I was in London a couple of years ago. He gave me a copy of the pindaric ode he was commissioned to write in Greek for the 2012 London Olympics by Boris Johnson, who read it aloud (quite dramatically but without pitch accents) at a couple of olympics-related events.

    You can find out more about D’Angour’s multifarious activities at his website.

  11. Server not found.

  12. http://www.armand-dangour.com/ is the correct address, there was an errant right-directed-quotes mark in Alan’s link.

  13. Thanks!

  14. There are ancient mockeries of rhetors who put so much emotion into certain words that they got the pitch contour wrong and ended up saying different words.

    The actor Hegelokhos made himself a laughingstock by mispronouncing Euripides’ line “The storm is over and I see a calm” (γαλήν’ ὁρῶ) as “… and I see a weasel” (γαλῆν ὁρῶ).

  15. In our modern days, in a play based on Genesis, the line “And there came a great wind over the surface of the waters” (which is not from the text) was delivered impeccably, but unfortunately one of the actors farted quite loudly at the same time.

  16. Tim May says:

    TR:
    Thank you, that explains an email signature I encountered years ago.

  17. John Cowan: The King James version has: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” and “breath” or “wind” is a plausible etymological translation of וְר֣וּחַ.

  18. רוּחַ, rather.

  19. Whoops. I just copied and pasted the word v’forgot to strip off the vav.

  20. U’forgot, you mean.

  21. Rodger C says:

    As a phrase, ruach elohim can be rendered “mighty wind.”

  22. Ariadne says:

    The προσωδία of classical Greek was reportedly lost during the period of Koine Greek. Thereafter the language sounded considerably different. All that was left from the various musical tones of words was a complicated set of now meaningless rules about when to use an acute (οξεία) and when to use a grave (περισπωμένη) mark, when to use a smooth (ψιλή) or a rough (δασεία) breathing mark, or which vowels are considered short (βραχέα) and which are considered long (μακρά), and there were some that could be both (δίχρονα). Children used to spend years in primary school trying to learn things that had nothing to do with their linguistic reality, since these marks do not in any way affect the way words are pronounced in modern Greek. I was one of those hapless children. Thank God this was over in 1982. I wouldn’t like anyone to get me wrong, I’m very proud of my native tongue and its development through the millennia, but I feel some things are better left to those who would like to be experts in a certain field. But hey, it was not a complete waste of time. For example, I know why words like hour, hypnotic, hygiene, hysteria, hematology, history, homogeneous, etc. in English are written with an “h” at the beginning, whereas other words like astronomy are not. My sister, who went to school after the polytonic system was abolished and can also speak English, probably doesn’t.

  23. ruach elohim can be rendered “mighty wind.”

    Not for this Hebrew speaker it can’t…

  24. In principle רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים could be an intensified רוּחַ, as in חֶרְדַּת אֱלֹהִים ‘great terror’ (1 Sa. 14:15), or the modern Hebrew פַּחַד אֱלֹהִים ‘terrible fear’, but I do agree it’s a stretch. Other uses of רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים in Genesis and Exodus refer to a divine inspiration in a person.

  25. Rodger C says:

    There’s the famous (urban-legendary?) case of James I approving the translation “He saith unto the kings, Ye are gods,” where the psalmist seems to have intended “He says to the kings, ‘How mighty you are.'”

  26. Ariadne: There are occasional fluctuations in the use of h in English words of Greek origin due to the influence of French, which has no /h/ and doesn’t consistently write it in these words. Thus the device for measuring distance in a car is an odometer in English, from French odomètre; but the much rarer word for the method of measuring the distance a ship travels is hodometry, directly from Classical Greek.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    חֶרְדַּת אֱלֹהִים ‘great terror’ (1 Sa. 14:15), or the modern Hebrew פַּחַד אֱלֹהִים ‘terrible fear’

    Do these work, grammatically, as “the fear of God”?

  28. Yep. But they’re specific idioms — there’s no productive template X of God “mighty X”.

  29. “There are ancient mockeries of rhetors who put so much emotion into certain words that they got the pitch contour wrong and ended up saying different words.” Not always by accident.

    In his speech “On the crown” Demosthenes was defending his entire career against his bitter enemy Aeschines. In his prosecutorial speech “Against Ctesiphon”, attacking Demosthenes and defending his own career, Aeschines had insisted that he was a genuine friend, not a paid agent, of Alexander the Great. Demosthenes scornfully asked the assembly judging the case, “Do you think that Aeschines is a paid hireling (μισθωτός, mi:stho:tós) of Alexander, or just his friend?” (sec. 52). The text of Demosthenes’ speech continues, “You hear what they say,” addressed to Aeschines. Presumably members of the audience had responded to Demosthenes’ question by yelling “μισθωτός!”

    The story is that to make sure he got the right answer to his question, Demosthenes deliberately mispronounced the word μισθωτός as μίσθωτος (mí:stho:tos), with the acute accent on the first syllable, so that members of the audience would yell μισθωτός to correct his mispronunciation, and he would get the answer he wanted.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Yep. But they’re specific idioms — there’s no productive template X of God “mighty X”.

    I thought so. What came to mind was “I’ll put the fear of God into him”, which I think I remember encountering in English with a meaning around “I’ll beat him up”.

    The story is that to make sure he got the right answer to his question, Demosthenes deliberately mispronounced the word μισθωτός as μίσθωτος (mí:stho:tos), with the acute accent on the first syllable, so that members of the audience would yell μισθωτός to correct his mispronunciation, and he would get the answer he wanted.

    But that’s just the placement of stress, not the kind of stress (neutralized for short vowels anyway).

  31. “But that’s just the placement of stress, not the kind of stress (neutralized for short vowels anyway).” Yes, but it’s a good story. And, anyway, when you wrote “There are ancient mockeries of rhetors who put so much emotion into certain words that they got the pitch contour wrong and ended up saying different words”, I think you were conflating this story about the rhetor Demosthenes with the story about the actor Hegelokhos.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    More likely I was just mistaking the actor for a rhetor. I think I’d have remembered the story about Demosthenes together with his name if I’d known the story.

  33. Ariadne says:

    @Bill W: It is, indeed, a good story. A detail: By misplacing the accent, Demosthenes didn’t say a different word (as he could have done if he had pronounced, for example, «πότε» as «ποτέ»), he just pronounced the word wrongly. There is no word «μίσθωτος». The word is pronounced «μισθωτός» (it’s still in everyday use), and of course his audience was quick to correct him. Clever trick, though. It shows you how politicians have always manipulated the masses.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    “I know words, I have the best words”…

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