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Scholar gives a voice to ancient music silent for millennia
By Ken Gewertz
Imagine a time in the remote future when all that is known of our world
is what archaeologists have been able to excavate from the rubble - a
handful of tantalizing puzzles with most of the pieces missing.
Suppose the scholars of that time were able to decipher the librettos of
Verdi, Puccini, and Oscar Hammerstein, the lyrics of Cole Porter, Irving
Berlin, and Joni Mitchell, but could not reproduce one note of their
If we could communicate with those future historians, surely we would
want to tell them: You are missing the best part of what we loved about
these productions, the part that thrilled us, lifted our hearts, the part
we tapped our feet and snapped our fingers to.
That is more or less the situation we face when we read the poetry and
drama of ancient Greece. The epic verse of Homer, the love poems of
Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles, and the comedies of Aristophanes -
all were accompanied by music. And yet that music - its melody, harmony,
and rhythm, its very sound - has been almost completely lost to us.
Almost, but not quite. A number of clues remain, and one scholar believes
that he can fit them together and resurrect a music that actually can be
played and sung. His name is Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and he is
conducting his research as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.
"Almost any ancient Greek text we read today contains a reference to
music. How can we understand this culture unless we understand its
music?" Yatromanolakis asks.
Despite the cultural importance of ancient Greek music, classical
scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries have pronounced it dead,
unrecoverable. Yatromanolakis believes this pronouncement is premature.
"There is a large corpus of theoretical writings on ancient music, and we
have actual musical scores that have rarely been studied or talked about.
It seemed to me that since we have all this material, the obituary can't
The reason the puzzle of ancient Greek music has remained unsolved for so
long, Yatromanolakis believes, is that the necessary interdisciplinary
approach has not yet been brought to bear on it. Up until now, the few
scholars who have studied ancient Greek music have either been
musicologists who lacked classical training and could not adequately
interpret the ancient texts, or else classical scholars whose
understanding of music left something to be desired.
"The ball keeps being tossed back and forth between these two groups, and
in the end no breakthroughs are made and we continue to say that ancient
Greek music has died."
Yatromanolakis may be ideally qualified to make a breakthrough in this
field because he combines both types of expertise. Brought up in
Herakleion on the Greek island of Crete, he earned a bachelor's degree in
classics from the University of Athens, then went on to earn a master's
and D.Phil. from Oxford University.
At the same time, he was developing his knowledge of music, concentrating
not only on history and theory, but on performance as well. The
instruments he has mastered include piano, guitar, sitar, tabla, and
kithara, and he is equally at home with Mozart as he is with the music of
Ali Akbar Khan, Caetano Veloso, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The kithara, a Greek stringed instrument that goes back to the time of
Homer, plays an especially important role in Yatromanolakis' efforts to
find the key to the music of the ancient Greeks, for it is on this
instrument that much of this music can be properly performed.
Although he stipulates that performance is only a secondary concern (his
first interest is filling in the blanks of our scholarly knowledge of
ancient Greek music), he and several friends from Oxford get together
periodically to play these ancient pieces and are planning to produce a
CD of their work.
Yatromanolakis believes that when the CD appears, it will be by far the
most accurate rendition of ancient Greek music to date (there have been
several attempts in the past, but he believes they rely too much on
imagination and not nearly enough on knowledge). And while his own
attempt may not be an exact replication, he does not consider this
uncertainty a reason to abandon the project. After all, he points out,
there is much controversy about how music of the 17th and 18th centuries
was performed, but this does not deter modern musicians from playing it.
Yatromanolakis is full of praise for the Harvard Society of Fellows for
supporting him in his research and for Harvard classicists like Gregory
Nagy and Gloria Pinney for offering their expertise.
Their encouragement must seem sweet indeed since the quest, for the most
part, has been a lonely one. Yatromanolakis estimates that there are only
a few other people in the world seriously pursuing a similar line of
research. They are far outnumbered by the skeptics and naysayers who
proclaim the music's demise. But Yatromanolakis, with a confidence that
borders on the evangelical, has no use for those who declare his goal
"To say that ancient music has died is an old-fashioned view," he says.
"This is not a healthy skepticism, in my opinion."
According to Yatromanolakis, those who predict failure for the project
may be unaware of the sources that are available, or of the progress that
has been made in interpreting them.
€ the musical tables of Alypius, a Greek scholar thought to have lived in
the fourth century A.D., which Yatromanolakis has used in new ways to
decipher the Greeks' notational system;
€ actual musical settings of poems by Euripides and later writers,
preserved on papyri, parchment, and stone inscriptions. In these ancient
scores, the notation for the singers was written above the words while
that for the instrumentalists was written between them;
€ ancient works on musical theory by Euclid, Pseudo-Aristotle, Aristides
Quintilianus, Boethius, and others. One of these theoretical works is by
Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle. Last summer in the Bibliotheque
Nationale in Paris, Yatromanolakis discovered an unpublished work that
follows Aristoxenus' views on music and harmonics; he is now editing it
Yatromanolakis has studied these and numerous other written texts,
examined vase paintings for clues about the place of music in Greek
society, and probed the remains of ancient instruments in the hope of
constructing modern equivalents. He has also examined other ancient music
systems that may throw light on the way Greek music was played and
"I always try to cross-examine these sources to increase my chances of
coming to valid and safe conclusions," he said.
Yatromanolakis plans to bring together much of this material in a book he
is writing with the working title of "Society in Contest: Poetic and
Musical Competitions in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Eras."
The title refers to the numerous contests held all over Greece in which
poets, playwrights, singers, dancers, choral groups, and instrumentalists
vied for the glory of being chosen number one. The book will provide a
cultural context for his effort to reconstitute Greek music.
He is also revising an earlier book-length study titled "Sappho in the
Making," an examination of the seventh century B.C. woman poet whose love
lyrics exist only in tantalizing fragments.
With his visionary outlook, single-minded application, and devotion to
the most rigorous scholarly standards, Yatromanolakis seems likely to
achieve startling breakthroughs in his discipline.
"After such a long tradition of studying the classics, we must broaden
our focus to include all possible aspects of the classical world. When we
achieve an understanding of ancient Greek music, I believe it may
revolutionize our field."
Copyright 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
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