Greek Music

The subject is controversial not so much for lack of evidence, which indeed extends over some eight centuries, as from its extreme and baffling obscurity. The obstacles to our understanding are principally two in number:

first, the ugliness of such specimens of Greek music as have been preserved and deciphered;

secondly, the angles of vision from which the field has been surveyed by the Greek musical writers. As to the former, this fact at any rate is certain. If with any expectation of what we call melody we approach the " Hymn to Apollo " or the " Hymn to the Muses," or any other of the fragments reprinted by Dr. Monro, we are preparing for ourselves a grievous disappointment. The musical phrases have, for our ear, no beauty of sound, no coherence and little or no shape. It seems at first sight inexplicable that the nation which gave us Phidias and Sophocles should have made no better music than this. And when we consult on this point the Greek musical theorists, our bewilderment passes. into exasperation. About methods of composition they tell us nothing, except a few isolated remarks on its ethical effect; about the nature of voice and instrument they tell us hardly anything, not even enough for us to understand their quality and use: page after page is occupied with minute technical disquisition on points of orthography and accidence, on the names of the notes, on the differences of modes and scales and! genera: it is as though a book on Greek sculpture should be confined to a description of the tool-shed, or a book on English literature-to an analysis of the alphabet and an excursus on the parts of speech. Now and again there-is a glimmer of interest, as when Aristoxenus. tells us that the compass of voices and instruments alike is about two octaves and a fifth, or when Aristides Quintilianus distinguishes the genera by saying that the diatonic can. be sung by all men, the chromatic by students, and the enharmonic only by the most skilful virtuosi, but the reader may judge of the prevailing chiaroscuro in which these are among the high lights.

Fortunately we can supplement this by a considerable number of allusions to music in the works of the philosophers and of the writers on social life. From these the following conclusions would seem to emerge. First, that Greek music was essentially vocal. Of the instruments employed, the trumpet (a straight metal tube) appears to have been used only for signalling in war and possibly for summons to the temple services; the others were various forms of pipe and of lyre or harp, which doubled the voice or kept time to the moving feet. Plato in the Laws (n. 669) condemns pure instrumental music as unworthy of reasonable beings:

" For where there are no words it is very difficult to recognise the meaning of the melody and rhythm or to see that any worthy object is represented by them, and we must acknowledge that this kind which aims only at rapid continuity and brutal noise, and uses pipe and lyre not as accompaniments of the dance and the song, is merely uncivilised."

Again, Aristotle says significantly in the Problems (xix. 43) that the pipe is a better accompanying instrument than the lyre, " because it is more like the human voice and can therefore cover more easily a mistake of the singer," which clearly implies that the accompaniment was not independent but a doubling of the vocal part, and in the same spirit asserts (xix. 9) that there should be only one accompanying instrument at a time, because " many pipes or lyres would obscure the voice."

Secondly, almost the whole of Greek criticism is concentrated on the ethical or emotional effect of the music. Melodies, modes, rhythms are all judged, not by any standard of intrinsic beauty, but according to their effect on the character: everything which excites or softens is to be discarded: those alone are to be kept which inculcate dignity and self-restraint. Of this doctrine Plato is the chief exponent;

the whole theory of musical education in the Republic and the Laws is built upon it; even the instruments of many sounds are to be banished from the community and every attempt at luxury or licence is to be sternly prohibited. There is a remarkable passage in the Laws (n. 666) which carries this view to an unforeseen conclusion. On occasions of public ceremonial, says Plato, the choruses should be sung, not by boys, but by old men who because of their greater stability of character will impart a sounder moral tone to the music: and he adds that if the old men feel any misgivings on the score of failing voice they must be mellowed with wine until " their hearts are warm within them and they are more ready and less ashamed to sing."

Thirdly, there is no evidence that the Greeks knew anything of harmony. The word harmonia means a length or diapason of eight notes, with a possible extension to the melodies which it covered; it is never used in the sense of a concurrence or combination of parts. They allowed, no doubt, singing at the octave so that the men's voices might be reinforced by those of women and boys, and even coined for this the special name of " magadising," from magadis, a large kind of harp; but they never discovered the concourse of sweet sounds from which the whole of our modern music is derived, and Aristotle (Problems, xrs. 17, 18) lays it down as a law of nature that no interval except the octave is here admissible.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important of all, the Greeks never seem to have regarded a melody as a separate unit which could be detached from its original set of words and transferred to others. They had advanced so far as to connect certain melodies with certain songs, and thus had passed beyond the stage of primitive improvisation: Aristophanes, for instance (Clouds, 967), tells us of two songs, " Pallas, dread sacker of cities," and " A far-borne cry," which were used in the Athenian schools, and adds that the pupils were beaten if they made any attempt to improve on the original form: but there is no example, so far as I am aware, of a Greek tune treated as independent. We hear of poets writing dithyrambs in a particular mode, but never to a particular melody, and although we know the names of a few Greek musiciansDamon, for example, and Olympusthey are of so little account that our Encyclopaedias of Music do not accord them the bare mention. And here, perhaps, we may find the solution of our whole difficulty. Greek music, it would appear, had no separable melody, no harmony, no instrumental writing, no better notation than alphabetical letters written above the verse; and the specimens that have come down to us conform in no way to our standards of musical beauty. Yet there can be no doubt that it was an extremely subtle and delicate art; that it was full of technical distinctions which we cannot appreciate and of ethical principles which we cannot apply. Only one explanation seems to me possible: that it was not music in our sense of the term at all, but a special way of reciting poetry, determined by nuances of expression which had been steadily and continuously refined by the most artistic people on earth, but throughout their history more akin to the method of the speaking than of the singing voice. And of this conclusion the most significant support is the fact, if it be a fact, that they never crossed the frontier between dependent and independent melody.