Reply To: Music

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:29 AM

    Music in ancient Greece

    During ancient Greece, music occupied a very important role, both in social life and in religion. For Greeks music was an art which included, besides music itself, also poetry, dance, medicine and magical practices. The importance of music in the Greek world is witnessed by numerous myths about it. One of them is that of Orpheus, its inventor, who managed to convince the gods of Hades to return to light the disappeared nymph Eurydice.

    During the archaic period, from the origins to the sixth century BC, music was only practiced by professionals: the aedi and rhapsodes. They declaimed the myths accompanied by a musical instrument and handed down the music orally. Later on, during the classical period, from VI to IV century b.C., music became part of the educational system and was thus popularized. To this period date back very few sources of musical writing which were the exclusive patrimony of professionals, as music was, as we have already mentioned, handed down orally.

    Also in the classical period developed the tragedy. The subjects of tragedy were taken from literary myths and consisted of dialogues between two or three characters alternating with choral songs. The actors were all men, wore masks and acted with the accompaniment of music. The architectural structure of the theater consisted of a semicircular staircase that housed the audience, in front of which was a stage on which the actors performed, while between the staircase and the stage was an orchestra along with a choir.

    The Greek musical instruments were different: the most common were the lyre or zither and the aulos. The lyre was an instrument whose strings were plucked using a plectrum, an instrument sacred to the god Apollo. The aulos, on the other hand, was a wind instrument, or reed aerophone, sacred to the god Dionysus. Among the Hellenes were also in use percussion instruments including drums and cymbals, better known as cymbals.

    The Greeks also approached the music to mathematics and the movement of the stars. Pythagoras, approaching music to the movement of the planets, understood that it too was governed by precise mathematical laws. He brought his intuition on the monochord and discovered that if a string produced a sound of a certain pitch, to obtain a sound at a higher octave it was necessary to vibrate half of the string, to obtain the fifth was enough to vibrate two thirds of the string, and so on.

    At the base of the Greek musical system there was the tetrachord formed by four descending sounds included in a right fourth interval. The two extreme sounds were fixed, while the two intermediate sounds were mobile. Tetrachords were divided into diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic. The union of two tetrachords formed a mode that could be Doric, Phrygian or Lydian. Depending on the type of union, modes could be joined or disjoined. If to a disjointed Doric mode was added a tetrachord conjoined to the high note, another tetrachord conjoined to the low note and under this last one a note, it was obtained the tèleion system, that is perfect, with the extension of two octaves. The musical rhythm was based on the poetic one. In Greek poetry, metrics were based on the duration of syllables: short or long, the same was true in music. The short is equivalent to today’s quaver and the long is equivalent to today’s semiquaver. Rhythm was the result of the union of two or more notes or syllables, ordered in rhythmic patterns called feet. In poetry the combination of several feet formed the verse and the combination of several verses formed the stanza.

    Greeks also attributed to music an educational function, as they believed it was an art capable of enriching people’s soul. According to Plato music had to serve to enrich the human soul, as well as gymnastics served to strengthen the body. This discourse is expanded with the doctrine of ethos for which each mode has its own specific temperament that can positively or negatively affect the soul of people. For Plato, the Doric or Phrygian modes have a positive effect, while the Lydia modes can disturb the rational balance. Aristotle accepted the classification of ethos, but considered that all modes could benefit the soul. Until this time, musical theory was known exclusively from a mathematical point of view. Later Aristoxenus of Tarentum understood the importance of hearing in the perception of sounds.

    The musical experience of ancient Greece constitutes a fundamental moment in the formation of modern musical culture, even if, paradoxically, in the course of the past centuries very few direct musical testimonies were known, and still, after decades of systematic paleographic and archaeological research, only a few dozen fragments are known, most of which have come to us in precarious situations of conservation and largely incomplete.

    The reason for such glaring gaps in the tradition of the ancient musical repertoire depends on the fact that the use of notation, one of the distinctive and characterizing elements of Greek musical culture, was considered an exceptional practice, of very limited diffusion. The vast majority of the repertoire continued to be handed down orally, on the basis of typical structures (the so-called nómoi), subject to processes of free modification and variation by the interpreters, not unlike the Middle Eastern maqam and Indian raga.

    However, in ancient Greece two basic conditions for the development of Western music were realized: on the one hand, the beginning of a systematic research on the theoretical and technical foundations of musical language, which resulted in an extremely refined and subtle rationalization of its fundamental parameters; on the other hand, the foundation of a musical aesthetics, with particular reference to the problem of the significant reflections of compositional structures. It was in particular these two aspects, handed down through a vast specialized theoretical literature and the works of the major Greek writers and philosophers, that directly influenced medieval thought and concretely addressed, albeit in a mediated way, musical taste in some key moments of European musical history, particularly in the Renaissance and early eighteenth century.

    The Greek speculation on music acquired the principle, destined to be a constant of every Western musical experience until our century, that the language of sounds responds to precise conventions, rationally usable in view of certain expressive purposes; intuiting, among other things, its irreplaceable pedagogical value and considering it, consequently, as a central moment of a balanced intellectual and moral development, of a harmonic paidéia. The process of simplification and spiritualization to which the Christian Middle Ages subjected musical language, reducing it, in the context of the liturgy, to vocal expressions only, sounds confirmation of an acquired awareness of the significant virtues of an art that Platonic thought had already accepted only by banning its obscure Dionysian implications.

    In addition, the Greeks, always started the process of full autonomy of music from the parallel poetic and choreographic expressions, with which it had coincided in practice until the fourth century BC. C. The subsequent distinct development of the arts is not only a symptom of decadence after the extraordinary flowering of the classical period, but the premise for an ever deeper awareness of their respective techniques. On the contrary, it was a negative fact, destined to weigh on a large part of the Middle Ages, the distinction between a practical sphere, destined to the care of professional performers, and a purely speculative theoretical sphere: a typical example of this order of investigation is the vast literature, of distant Pythagorean origin, on the music of the spheres (which constituted, however, a theme of enormous resonance in all areas of thought and art until the first half of the eighteenth century).