Printer Friendly

Ancient Greek Music.

One is drawn to inquire about ancient Greek music for the following reasons: there are ample and varied references to music's power and pervasive role in ancient Greek life as well as numerous artifacts in the form of vase paintings, carvings, and a smattering of extant instruments; and we are aware of the meaning of music in our own lives. Therefore we seek to know and appreciate the music that graced such noble civilizations as those of ancient Greece, to connect our own experience with that extolled by documents and objects. Consequently, one must be disappointed upon encountering the paltry selection of actual music. Only fifty or so items, most mere fragments, are preserved and forced to represent the cultural achievements of a millennium. The historical lacuna is aggravated by an aesthetic one: the music is too scanty, fragmented, and open to varied interpretation ever to succeed at giving us a sense of what it sounded like. As is so often the case in the study of past musical cultures, we cannot hope to know or experience how an ancient Greek felt when listening to music, and so must attempt to synthesize that experience by coupling our own musical sensibilities with historical documents. How different is the situation with Greek drama!

More narrowly, one might pursue a study of ancient Greek music in order to understand the theoretical writings, some of which are remarkably abstract, that accompany the musical tradition. Western musicians and theorists since the Middle Ages have seized upon these writings because they provide a rich compilation and analysis of musical phenomena and experience. Once translated, the new music theory served to underpin a musical tradition, beginning with Western Christian chant, with which we have direct experience. Given this discouraging assessment, it is noteworthy that scholars have devoted any attention whatsoever to the music per se of ancient Greece, and this attention must be accounted for by the glorious achievements of that civilization in other areas.

In this century, there have been a handful of comprehensive accounts of ancient Greek music along with several specialized studies. Among those general works that have largely shaped our understanding of this music are Curt Sachs's Musik des Altertums (Breslau: Jedermanns Bucherei, 1924) and, more important, his The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1943); Isobel Henderson's "Ancient Greek Music," in Ancient and Oriental Music (New Oxford History of Music, 1, ed. Egon Wellesz [London: Oxford University Press, 1957]), 336-403; Reginald P. Winnington-Ingram's "Greece, Ancient," in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (London: Macmillan, 1980); and recently Giovanni Comotti's Music in Greek and Roman Culture (trans. Rosaria V. Munson [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989]); and Die Musik des Alterturns (Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft, 1, ed. Albrecht Riethmuller and Frieder Zaminer [Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1989]). In this tradition, Martin L. West's new book is unique, I believe, in that it is a self-contained, comprehensive study in English devoted solely to the music of ancient Greece.

West casts his net wide, attempting not only to write about the entire body of ancient Greek music but also to do so in a manner accessible to many. We read in the preface: "In hope that the book may be of interest not only to classicists but also to musicologists, and indeed anyone with an interest in the history of music, I have tried to avoid allusions that might be unintelligible to one or the other group". Later we read that the author has tried "to explain everything from the ground up, desiring the book to be accessible to anyone who knows roughly what an octave is"--and, I might add, has $98.00 to spend on it. West succeeds at this attempt toward accessibility, especially in keeping his assumptions regarding musical knowledge in check. For example, West provides an introduction to the diatonic scale, ratios, the establishment of the whole-tone interval, and the representation of musical intervals by cents. This is not to imply that the author eschews technical aspects of music. Indeed, when the time comes in chapters 6 and 7, "Scales and Modes" and "Melody and Form," West proceeds full steam ahead in his analyses of system and melody, complete with the confusing array of octave species, tonoi, ethnic names, Damonian harmoniai, and so forth.

West divides up his broad treatment of ancient Greek music into: Greek musical life in general (chapter 1); the means of producing music, that is, voice and instruments (chapters 2-4); analysis of the music, which draws on a wide variety of artifacts and writings (chapters 5-7); theory and notation (chapters 8-9); a discussion, transcription, and analysis of surviving music (chapter 10); and a historical narrative of the musical tradition (chapters 11-12). Throughout his study, West is primarily concerned with the music itself and not with its subsequent legacy in the Western world. With this orientation, and an effort to make sense out of the varied and disparate remarks about ancient Greek music contained in literary and philosophical texts, West often draws on evidence supplied by ethnomusicologists, in particular Curt Sachs and Alan Lomax, regarding what the peoples of Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia actually sing and play. For example, West relies on studies by both Sachs and Lomax in his attempt to describe the sound of singing in ancient Greece, and concludes that the ancient singer produced a clear and pure sound, "free from roughness or huskiness". Another example is West's treatment of paired auloi, in which he notes the occurrence of paired pipes in musical performance in the Balkans and some Islamic countries.

There are few if any kinds of music or musical aspects of the ancient Greek world that West does not at least touch upon. He considers musical environments that are public, private, vocal, instrumental, professional, amateur, mythological, functional, competitive, and reflective. But given the enormous objective of the project, namely, to study a musical culture spanning a millennium, to accommodate its archaeological and literary remains, to speculate in the cavernous spaces that exist between isolated and fragmented bits of actual music, and to do so in the span of four hundred pages is probably an impossible task unless at least some aspects and areas receive only cursory treatment. In this regard, I find it noteworthy that West has been able to provide detailed commentary on several topics, for example, his treatment of extant auloi in corroboration with literary accounts and the limited degree to which such information may shed light on ancient scales. A later treatment of scales and modes (chapter 6), while detailed, would have been more informative if he had incorporated information about ratios consigned to the theory chapter. It is not easy to appreciate what might be "even" or regular about Ptolemy's homalon diatonic genus when it is represented as ascending intervals of 150, 165, and 183 cents. The ratios of tones make sense out of the name: 12:11, 11:10, 10:9.

A technical high point occurs in West's treatment of rhythm and tempo (chapter 5), subjects on which he has already established his authority with an earlier publication, Greek Metre (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982). There remains, of course, the musical and perhaps psychological problem of making sense out of measure and downbeat. West assures us that ancient measure carried with it no "implication of a dynamic accent at any point", and thus we must wonder just what it felt like to begin a measure in antiquity. West concludes his study with a purely historical account of the rise of ancient Greek music, beginning with the Mycenaeans, flowering during the Classical Period, wrenched by complication and more purely musical developments around 400 B.C.E. by the likes of Timotheus and Philoxenus, and its gradual decline during the Roman empire. The author also reconsiders the oriental nature of Greek music. The concluding summary and remarks are helpful.

Relatively short shrift is given to the forms of ancient Greek music (chapter 7) and its theory (chapter 8). West divides the musical corpus into three formal types: stichic, strophic, and free astrophic, and provides examples and comments for each type. Is it possible to be as precise and detailed about the various nomoi as it apparently is to be about Greek meter?

Acknowledging that "In the end, Antiquity was destined to leave us far more musical theory than music", West is unapologetic about choosing to concentrate on the music at the expense of the theory. "In the present work the attempt has been made to focus on the music first, mentioning ancient theory only insofar as it was part of the evidence". Such a decision is consistent with West's aims, although it may be disappointing to those with a primary interest in the foundation provided by Greek music theory for the rise and development of music from the Latin West. For example, in his presentation of Ptolemy's helikon, a device for establishing string lengths and fundamental musical intervals, West presents the device with numbers already attached to string lengths, but does not mention the geometry of similar triangles that supports it. It is with devices like Ptolemy's helikon that we can see the full flowering of the Greek musical tradition, one that mixes abstract geometrical truth, a priori pleasing combinations of sounds, and a contraption that you can cobble together in your basement in an hour or so, all aimed at getting a better understanding of how music makes us feel.

In sum, Martin West has given us a useful, comprehensive treatment of the subject. He supports his claims made in the body of the text with a moderate amount of documentary evidence in the form of footnotes, but probably not as much as one would expect from a work that was purely devoted to music history. The author has chosen to ignore most of the research on ancient Greek music conducted by American musicologists and music theorists, which has concentrated on documentation, theory, and transmission.

ANDRE BARBERA St. John's College, Annapolis
COPYRIGHT 1994 Music Library Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Barbera, Andre
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Previous Article:Biomusicology: Neurophysiological, Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Perspectives on the Origins and Purposes of Music.
Next Article:Cry for Luck: Sacred Song and Speech Among the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok Indians of Northwestern California.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters