Researchers reconstruct the ancient Greek music of Orestes papyrus

Musical fragment of Orestes of Euripides: the first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus of the Athenian tragic drama Eurresides of 408BC.

In 1932, the musicologist Wilfrid Perrett informed an audience at the Royal Musical Association of London of the words of an anonymous Greek professor with musical inclinations: "No one has reached the head or the tail of ancient Greek music, and no one will. Never". That way lies madness.

In fact, ancient Greek music has long posed a maddening enigma.

However, music was omnipresent in classical Greece, with most of the poetry from about 750 BC to 350 BC – the songs of Homer, Sappho and others – composed and performed as sung music, sometimes accompanied by dance.

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The Orestes choir was played by a choir and an aulo-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a choir of the Athenian Athenian Euripides & # 39; Orestes of 408BC that was used in the reconstruction.

The literary texts provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects and instruments used.

The lyre was a common feature, along with the popular aulos, two double-barred pipes played simultaneously by a single performer so that they sounded like two powerful oboes played in concert.

Despite this large amount of information, the meaning and sound of ancient Greek music have been incredibly elusive.

This is because the terms and notions found in old sources (mode, enharmonic, diesis, etc.) are complicated and unfamiliar. And while the music noted exists and can be interpreted reliably, it is scanty and fragmentary.

WHAT WAS THE PAPER OF ORESTES?

Musical fragment of Orestes of Euripides: the first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus of the Athenian tragic drama Eurresides of 408BC.

Musical fragment of Orestes of Euripides: the first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus of the Athenian tragic drama Eurresides of 408BC.

The first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus of the Athenian tragedy Euripides & # 39; Orestes of 408BC.

In 2016, I reconstructed the music of the Orestes papyrus for choral performance with accompaniment aulos, establishing a fast rhythm as indicated by the meter and the content of the words of the choir.

This Orestes choir was performed by a choir and an aulo-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, along with other reconstructed ancient scores.

Performed by highly qualified bagpipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the tone range of early music, as well as the tones, timbres and tunings of the instruments.

What could be reconstructed in practice often sounded quite strange and unpleasant, so that ancient Greek music had been considered by many as a lost art.

But recent developments have reversed this grim assessment in an exciting way.

A project to investigate ancient Greek music that I have been working on since 2013 has generated amazing ideas about how the ancient Greeks made music.

My research has even led to its performance, and hopefully, in the future, we will see many more reconstructions of this type.

The situation has changed in large part because in recent years some very well preserved auloi have been reconstructed by expert technicians such as Robin Howell and researchers associated with the European Music Archeology Project.

Performed by highly qualified bagpipers such as Barnaby Brown and Callum Armstrong, they provide a faithful guide to the tone range of early music, as well as the tones, timbres and tunings of the instruments.

The key to the ancient song was its rhythm, and the rhythms of ancient Greek music can be derived from the meters of poetry.

These were strictly based on the duration of the syllables of the words, which create long and short element patterns.

While there are no tempo indications for old songs, it is often clear whether a meter should be sung fast or slow (until the invention of mechanical stopwatches, the tempo in any case was not fixed, and was meant to vary between performances). Setting an appropriate tempo is essential for music to sound good.

And the melodies, the melody and the harmony? This is what most people want to say when they claim that the & # 39; music & # 39; Ancient Greek has been lost.

Thousands of words on the theory of melody and harmony survive in the writings of ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Aristides Quintilian; and a few fragmentary scores with ancient musical notation came to light in Florence at the end of the sixteenth century.

A roman mosaic with player aulos. There were several types of aulos, simple or double. The most common variety was a cane instrument

A roman mosaic with player aulos. There were several types of aulos, simple or double. The most common variety was a cane instrument

A roman mosaic with player aulos. There were several types of aulos, simple or double. The most common variety was a cane instrument

But this evidence of real music did not give a real sense to the melodic and harmonic riches of the literary sources we learn.

More documents with old annotations in papyrus or stone have come to light intermittently since 1581, and now there are about 60 fragments.

Carefully compiled, transcribed and interpreted by scholars like Martin West and Egert Pöhlmann, they give us a better chance to understand how music sounded.

The first substantial musical document, found in 1892, preserves part of a chorus of the Athenian tragedy Euripides & # 39; Orestes of 408BC.

It has long posed problems of interpretation, mainly due to its use of quarter-tone intervals, which seem to suggest an extraterrestrial melodic sensitivity.

Western music works with integer tones and semitones; any smaller interval sounds like a note is playing or singing out of tune.

But my analysis of the Orestes fragment, published earlier this year, gave rise to surprising ideas.

First, I showed that the elements of the score clearly indicate the painting of words: the imitation of the meaning of the words by the shape of the melodic line.

We find a decreasing rate adjusted to the word "lamento", and a large upward jump that accompanies the word "jumps up".

Apolo illustrated playing his Lyre, a key part of ancient Greek music

Apolo illustrated playing his Lyre, a key part of ancient Greek music

Apolo illustrated playing his Lyre, a key part of ancient Greek music

WHAT WAS THE LYRA OF APOLLO?

According to ancient Greek mythology, the young god Hermes stole a herd of sacred cows from Apollo.

In order not to be followed, he made shoes for the cows that forced them to walk backwards.

Apollo, following the paths, could not follow where the cows went.

On the way, Hermes massacred one of the cows and offered everything but the entrails to the gods.

From the entrails and a turtle / turtle shell, he created the Lyre. Apollo, realizing that it was Hermes who had his cows, faced the young god.

Apollo was furious, but after hearing the sound of the lyre, his anger vanished.

Apollo offered to change the herd of cattle for the lira.

Therefore, the creation of the lira is attributed to Hermes.

Other sources credit it to Apollo himself.

Secondly, I showed that if the quarter notes worked as "passing notes", the composition was in fact tonal (focused on a tone to which the melody regularly reverts).

This should not be very surprising, since such tonality exists in all the documents of ancient music of later centuries, including the large-scale Delphic Paeos preserved in stone.

With these premises in sight, in 2016 I reconstructed the music of the papyrus of Orestes for the choral performance with accompaniment of aulos, establishing a fast rhythm as indicated by the meter and the content of the words of the choir.

This Orestes choir was performed by a choir and an aulo-player at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in July 2017, along with other reconstructed ancient scores.

It remains for me to realize, in the coming years, the other few dozen old scores that exist, many extremely fragmentary, and to represent a complete ancient drama with historically informed music in an ancient theater like that of Epidaurus.

Meanwhile, an exciting conclusion can be drawn.

The Western tradition of classical music is often said to begin with the Gregorian song of the ninth century.

But the reconstruction and performance of Greek music have shown that ancient Greek music must be recognized as the root of the European musical tradition.

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