Musician and classics tutor at Oxford University, Armand D’Angour, is attempting to reconstruct the music of ancient Greece, bringing back to life works from 750 to 400 BC that were once believed to be lost forever.
The works of classic authors of Western literature like Homer, Sappho, Sophocles and Euripides were all originally music, intended to be sung with the backing of lyre, reed-pipes, and percussion instruments. D’Angour says failing to restore them to their full former glory would be akin to a future generation hearing only the lyrics to the music of our time:
“Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of The Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi‘s operas were the words and not the music. 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.”
The key to the rebuilding lies within the rhythm of the words, which contain patterns of long and short syllables, while we know which instruments were used thanks to descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains. And recent discoveries have been made in ancient documents that show alphabetic letters and signs above vowels that indicate pitch.
But D’Angour says we shouldn’t expect the tunes to sound like Western music, comparing it instead to the folk traditions of places like India and the Middle East:
“In ancient Greek the voice went up in pitch on certain syllables and fell on others (the accents of ancient Greek indicate pitch, not stress). The contours of the melody follow those pitches here, and fairly consistently in all the documents.”
Interestingly, the compositions of Euripides were widely considered to be avant garde, as he refused to follow the traditional Greek method of word-pitch, while Homer’s works were most likely sung with the accompaniment of a four-stringed lyre called a phorminx and resulted in more monotonous music.
It’s too early to tell, but we’re guessing that this process will prove once and for all that the music of the Ancient Greeks sounded precisely nothing like Michael Bolton. Suck it, Disney.
Watch: Michael Bolton – Go The Distance (from Hercules)
(via BBC News)