Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.11.03

Michael Markovits, Die Orgel im Altertum.   Leiden:  Brill, 2003.  Pp. xxiii, 783.  ISBN 90-04-12575-2.  $279.00.  

Reviewed by Kai Brodersen, Universität Mannheim (

The mechanical musical instrument of the organ in antiquity, which looks like a small specialist field of enquiry, is the subject of a monumental work by the Swiss scholar Michael Markovits. It covers the centuries from 270 B.C. to A.D. 630 in a discussion of all available evidence for ancient organs in literature, art and archaeology from the Hellenistic, Roman, Jewish, early Byzantine, Syriac and late antique occidental worlds, leading to the middle Byzantine and hence Islamic cultures in the east and to Latin mediaeval culture in the west: a truly comprehensive view of antiquity. The book is written in German, so what follows tries to give the anglophone reader an idea of the wide range of this massive work and to provide an adequate evaluation of the work.

After a lucid and brief introduction, the book is organised in six chapters. The first four discuss the evidence and what it can be used for as well as the later tradition and the history of scholarship on ancient organs, while the final two provide indexes, which make the whole book as accessible as one can hope for in a handbook, and images that complement the first chapters.

Chapter 1 on "The Sources" (pp. 7-368) discusses all available evidence for organs in antiquity and presents it in a uniform format. For every one of the 136 items it provides the title and a standard reference, a brief general description, and a survey of the transmission of the work providing the evidence. This is followed by a full quotation of the relevant part of the work (with a description of the context) in the original language and in a fresh German translation (or, with works of art and archaeology, references to published images and/or to the figures and plates at the end of the volume as well as reconstruction drawings) and by extensive notes and a full discussion of the relevance of the quotation for the history of the organ. Parallel evidence, both texts which were probably used by the author and texts which show the work's reception in later literature, and finally a detailed study of previous research and a comprehensive bibliography conclude every entry in this chapter.

The sources are presented in chronological order, from the first reference to an organ in Philon's Belopoiika 61 to Isidorus' Etymologiae 18,47. They include three archaeological finds of organs: the first century A.D. fragments of an organ (if the identification is correct, as M. carefully points out) found in Dion in Pieria/Greece (first published in 1994, now in the Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki), and the third century fragments from Aquincum (now in the Historical Museum in Budapest) and from Aventicum in Helvetia/Switzerland (now in the Roman Museum in Avenches), which were identified as parts of an organ only in 1996. Add to these 5 inscriptions and 87 descriptions of organs in literary works of a wide variety of genres (technical, scientific and philosophical treatises, historiography, encyclopaedias and lexica, scholia, poems, novels, letters, a law code, Jewish and Christian literature, including sermons and commentaries to the Bible), and in several classical and oriental languages. Add, too, 41 ancient images in an equally wide range of media (terracotta models and oil lamps, reliefs and graffiti on stone, including grave stelai and sarcophagi, mosaics, medals, gems, vases, glasses, ivory diptychs and illuminated manuscripts).

The careful and detailed study of every individual item provides the core of the work, and will not be superseded for a long time. As is unavoidable in a monograph of this size, there a few infelicities (on p. 36 the translation of the first few lines of the Delphic inscription Syll. 737 -- a decree honouring an organ player referred to as hydraulos -- is incorrect, but then they do not affect what is said about the hydraulos, and on p. 108 the exclusion of Heron's Pneumatica 1,43 -- a description of a anemourion moving a piston to push air into a system of tubes and pipes to create sounds -- could be debated; while it may indeed be just a "Spielerei" [toy] which was never meant to be put to real use, it might still refer to an organ), but the overall impression is one of highest quality, and quantity, of detail on all the available evidence.

Chapter 2 on "The Results" (pp. 369-427) systematically uses the results of the individual discussions in chapter 1 to present first the place of the organ in ancient culture and then the building of organs as part of the history of ancient technology. Here, the first part demonstrates how far the distribution of organs in the ancient world went, what terms were used for their description, how much can be said about their actual sound and about the people who played them and who helped the player by ensuring a steady flow of air with pumps or bellows, whether organs were to be heard together with other musical instruments and how they were classified in ancient theory. It also discusses when and why organs were used and how they were appreciated in antiquity and finally looks at the place of the organ in early Byzantine culture, in commentaries on the Bible and in Jewish as well as Christian literature and art, including the symbolism attached to organs in early Christianity. The second part discusses in detail the technology of organs, water organs, pumps, valves, bellows, the various aspects of mechanics from the keyboard to the pipe, and, in a very useful table, the technical terminology used in the sources.

Chapter 3 on "The Heritage" (pp. 429-462) first discusses the mediaeval adaptation of ancient terminology like hydraulis, organum, cicuta, fistula, aula, calamus, tibia, cochlea, follis, physa, pnigeus, pinax, lingua, hydraules, and magister. Its second part shows how ancient methods of constructing an organ influenced mediaeval organ builders, again ranging from the systems of providing the steady stream of air to the actual pipes.

Chapter 4 on "The History of Scholarship" (pp. 463-509) assesses research done on the organ in antiquity in a wide variety of disciplines from the 16th to the later 20th centuries. It ends with a survey of the book's own contributions to scholarship, listing the evidence which had so far escaped scholarly attention and the new insights the book provides into the technical vocabulary as used in the sources, into the scientific writings on music in antiquity, into iconographic traditions, into the technology of building organs (and other mechanical instruments) in antiquity, and into the medieval tradition regarding these problems. While the author would have many reasons to declare triumphantly how much his painstaking work has led beyond what had been known before, he never allows himself to boast but sticks to his matter-of-fact style of presentation even here.

Chapter 5, "Indexes" (pp. 511-682), provides detailed references to the sources used arranged by genre, to manuscripts, to Biblical and mythical figures, to emperors, to popes, and to ancient and medieval as well as modern people. A glossary of Greek and Roman terms used for the technical and musical aspects of organs, for the instruments, for their use in theatre, amphitheatre and circus and for their players is followed by similar lists of theological terms, references in Biblical, Jewish and Apocryphal works, Christian symbolism, iconography and a systematical list of technical terms. Given the huge range of the work, it might seem inappropriate to ask for even more, but it is to be suspected that readers who are not familiar with the German technical vocabulary would have been grateful for a further list detailing English and French equivalents for the technical vocabulary, which is often hard to find in an average dictionary.

Chapter VI on "Images" (pp.683-783) provides 24 figures -- reconstruction drawings by the author and illustrations from earlier research publications -- and 41 plates illustrating the archaeological and iconographical evidence as discussed in chapter I.

The book is of interest to many disciplines. It provides the classicist with an up-to-date case study of an ancient organon in everyday use in antiquity. It provides theologians with comprehensive information on the early history of a musical instrument which western Christianity has adopted and continues to use to this day. It provides the historian of art with evidence and models for iconographical studies (and even for early perspective). And it provides the musicologist with evidence for, and new thoughts on, the tonal systems, construction and playing techniques as well as the practicalities of performances with an organ.

This is a massive work -- a hardcover of almost 3 kg, with than 800 large (nearly A4-sized) pages on glossy paper --, and a very well produced book: The typesetting (by the author himself!) is flawless not only in German and other European languages, but also in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic (which is sometimes left untranslated), and the figures and plates -- some of them newly drawn by the author, others excellent half-tones -- are well chosen and well printed. Save for new archaeological discoveries, the book is unlikely to be superseded for a long time. Given the wealth of new insights, it does credit to Markovits' scholarship that he ends with a list of questions which are still open (p. 509), thus encouraging further research for which, after all, his work will provide a permanent foundation. Author and publisher must be congratulated on the publication of this comprehensive work on the organ in antiquity.

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