Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.15

Angelo Meriani, Sulla Musica Greca Antica: Studi e Ricerche. Quaderni del Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichità.   Salerno:  Università degli Studi di Salerno, 2003.  Pp. 150.  ISBN 88-7188-794-8.  €16.30.  

Reviewed by Peter Wilson, University of Sydney (
Word count: 1758 words

This short book consists of three chapters on ancient Greek music, all revised versions of studies published previously. We are to be grateful for the (doubtless sporadic) generosity of a system of academic publication that can bring together these valuable contributions to a thriving area in the more accessible form of a book but regretful too at the absence of any systematic attempt to weave what are rather specialist studies into a more continuous argument about ancient musical practice and theory. There is a brief, programmatic preface by Rossi that locates M.'s work within a recent trend in ancient music studies moving away from an emphasis on reconstruction towards a more historically and socially grounded attempt to understand the function of this phenomenon that permeated all Greek culture. Rossi is himself a luminary of the Italian tradition that pioneered this development, and M. shows that the generation of Rossi, Pretagostini, Gentili, Comotti et al. has able successors.1 It is also very encouraging to see that M.'s work has benefited from direct interaction with the finest anglophone expertise in the field (the publication of a series of lectures recently given by Andrew Barker at the University of Salerno is promised by M., p. 23.)

Chapter 1 is a rich, extended analysis of a fascinating paragraph from the Sympotic Miscellany of Aristoxenos (fr. 124W). In it a speaker describes the fate of the culture of Poseidonia on the Tyrrhenian gulf, whose Greek ways had been 'thoroughly barbarised' (becoming Tyrrhenian or Roman), but whose citizens 'even now' conduct a single Greek festival during which they gather together and recall their ancient words and practices amid lamentation. With some precision, the speaker compares this mournful collective expression of Poseidonian cultural loss and nostalgia with 'our' practice: our theatres have likewise 'become thoroughly barbarised' as 'this utterly populist music has advanced to a great level of degeneration'; 'we few (ὀλίγοι) gather together among ourselves and remember what music once was.' M. argues for a date of composition for the work of c. 320, and has an excellent discussion of its likely nature. He suggests that this literary symposium was one of Tarantine intellectuals debating the virtues of 'old' and 'new' music, with performative displays of each, and that the speaker of our fragment, if not Aristoxenos himself, was surely mouthing views he shared (p. 17).

M. goes on show how the nature of the work shapes its value as evidence for the religious history of Poseidonia on the one hand, and, on the other, for the ongoing conservative reaction to the cultural revolution known by modern scholarship as the 'New Music' -- until very recently a topic of little (and extremely jejune) critical analysis.2 Among the many valuable ideas that arise from his close reading, M. suggests that the festival in question may in reality have been the central cult of the founder-hero of Greek Poseidonia, a variety of cult to which ritual lament was entirely appropriate and which would at the same time easily lend itself to the sort of nostalgic (mis)interpretation in which M. thinks he has found Aristoxenos indulging. The citizens actually wept not for their lost Hellenic customs but for their founder-hero; their 'recalling of ancient names/words' (ἀναμιμνήσκονται τῶν ἀρχαίων ἐκείνων ὀνομάτων) refers not to a momentary ritual enactment of a pristine linguistic past but to an archaic anaklesis of the same oikistes.

M. also argues that the degeneration of Poseidonian culture lamented in this work must be dated to the high fourth century and so can have nothing to do with the establishment of a Latin colony in the city in 273, with which archaeologists have tried to co-ordinate it. Nor is this alleged fourth-century decline in keeping with epigraphic evidence for the persistence of Greek language and custom into the third century. This is, rather, part of a deeply ideologised history of music with its roots in developments of the late fifth century.

This is a valuable contribution to a growing interest in Aristoxenos in his cultural and historical contexts, rather than simply as the first theorist of harmonics (see also on ch. 2 below).3 We would have a very different view of the great Tarantine mousikos if some of his more 'cultural' studies had survived (and M. incidentally reveals just how much we need a new edition of the fragmentary works) -- any of his extensive research on dance, for example (On choruses, On dance in tragedy, Comparisons of dance-types -- all in more than one book). M.'s work reminds us how wide-ranging Aristoxenos was, how much a 'cultural historian' of music, and how much a man of deep practical as well as theoretical knowledge. It can only have been ignorance or neglect of the existence of works like On instruments, On auloi, On aulos-players and On the bore of the aulos that led Schlesinger to write in her huge book of 1939 devoted to the reed instrument that 'It is evident that Aristoxenus has no practical acquaintance either with the structure or with the technique of the Aulos'.4

Chapter 2 also treats Aristoxenos, and in some respects is a more conventional piece of source-criticism. It takes a new look at the single most important source for the history of Greek music, the pseudo-Plutarchean de Musica, a work of which Andrew Barker memorably wrote that 'the importance of the treatise lies in its lack of originality'.5 This expresses the conviction (and hope) that the author of this dialogue has transmitted with minimal intervention the views of earlier authorities. The preponderance of Aristoxenos among these has long been recognised, and M. effectively strengthens the case for thisopinio communis. (If the Suda was anywhere near right in reporting that Aristoxenos wrote 453 books, there was plenty to plagiarise.) M.'s main concern is to explore the means by which the author might have known of Aristoxenos' works, and he is broadly in accord with Lasserre's hypothesis that that was not directly but through the intermediary of his own near contemporary, Dionysos of Halikarnassos, who wrote a History of Music in 36 books.6

Like those who have spent much time with this text before him, M. regards it as crudely assembled (esp. pp. 55-56). For instance, he sees the many temporal markers used by its speakers to describe the degeneration 'in our times' from a noble musical past to be the result of wholesale exportation from works in which that 'now' was a period self-consciously in critical crisis over musical issues -- namely the late fifth and early fourth centuries. Similarly, for M. the arrangement of its subject-matter is dictated by its sources rather than having much intrinsic design of its own (pp. 57-58). One might feel that it is time to accord this Anonymous a little more craft and rhetorical acumen than this, but M. has done the service of refreshing interest in the structure and design of a text that is normally remorselessly raided for nuggets of historical fact.

The final chapter takes us back to an author with whom, as M. convincingly argues (pp.71-74), Aristoxenos had a more polemical intellectual relationship than is often imagined -- Plato. This is another wide-ranging voyage around a short passage well known to historians of Greek music, which as well provides a useful discussion of the main trends in musical theory prior to Aristoxenos. The passage is Republic book 7, 530b-531d, an exchange between Sokrates and Glaukon on the various 'sister disciplines' (530d) that are to form the basis of the intellectual formation of the philosopher-guardians, among which is ἁρμονία. Here M. tracks the intertwining of Plato's debt to the Pythagoreans with his ongoing struggle against empiricism of any kind in musical theory. In doing so, he is very successful at exposing some of the rhetorical stratagems Plato deploys against his musical enemies. For instance, he shows how, in a passage of the Phaidros (268d-e), Plato manipulates the terminological distinction ἁρμονικός: μουσικός to associate the former with a purely technical competence, while reserving for the latter a superior power of intellectual judgment, including judgment over the realm of competence of the ἁρμονικός (thus M. pp. 89-90). And yet it is clear that in wider linguistic usage μουσικός could be applied to practitioners and to theorists of an entirely empirical bent.

M. carefully unmasks similar rhetorical misappropriations in the Republic passage and alerts us in doing so to the need for a full study of Plato's extensive antimusical rhetoric. Particularly good is the detailed analysis (pp. 106-110) of the image Sokrates develops to mock the ἁρμονικοί in their attempt to identify the smallest perceptible musical interval (531): they 'torture' strings, putting them on the rack in pursuit of this utterly absurd enterprise. The only thing I missed in this discussion was comparison with the use of revealingly similar imagery, in full comic costume, by Mousike herself, recounting the abuse of her own 'strings' in Pherekrates' comedy Kheiron, fr. 155 K.-A. (Compare, for instance, Plato's use of the verb στρεβλοῦντας for the 'twisting on the pegs' of strings (531b) with the noun στρόβιλον of Phyrnis' 'peg' at fr. 155.14.) In Pherekrates, the perpetrators of this torture are a group of (in)famous practising composers (among them Phrynis), and so the echoes ought to make us reflect further on just how close the relationship was between musical theory, practice, performance and the critical reaction they generated, in the later fifth century.

The way M. elucidates the frustration permeating Plato's text with the Pythagoreans' inability to push their musical studies further into the realm of mathematical abstraction brings home forcefully a paradox at the heart of Plato's relation to μουσική, broadly understood as performance and its accompanying discourses: its vast cultural authority and social usefulness meant that it could never be ignored, but neither could it be made to comply with Platonic idealism. Its analysis (let alone its practice) can never entirely depart from the empirical world of (sound)-perception, and attempts to make it do so will result in little more than a kind of mathematical mysticism: 'non c'è musica senza suoni, e senza musica non c'è teoria musicale', as M. well puts it (p. 105).

M. shows a rare combination of skills and interests: scholarly ease with a range of difficult, mostly fragmentary texts; sensitive reading of their generic conditions and rhetorical ploys; an understanding of the more technical issues of ancient music; and an ability to move the questions of debate beyond traditional topics and towards a greater appreciation of the ideological and historical factors that made Greek music the contested field it always was.


1.   Others include Ceccarelli, Restani, Rocconi, Visconti and contributors to Cassio, A., Musti, D., Rossi, L. eds., Synaulia: cultura musicale in Grecia e contatti Mediterranei, AION filol.-lett. 5, Naples 2000.
2.   The work of Eric Csapo represents a sea-change in this area: 'The politics of the New Music', 207-48 in Murray, P. and Wilson, P. eds., Music and the Muses: The Culture of 'Mousike' in the Classical Athenian City, Oxford 2004.
3.   See now Visconti, A. Aristosseno di Taranto. Biografia e formazione spirituale, Naples 1999.
4.   Schlesinger, K. The Greek Aulos, London 1939, p. 61, quoted by M. p. 69 n. 80.
5.   Barker, A. Greek Musical Writings, vol. I, The Musician and his Art, Cambridge 1984, p. 205, quoted by M. p. 49 n. 4.
6.   Lasserre, F. Plutarque. De la Musique, Olten-Lausanne 1954.

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