Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.50

Maria Chiara Martinelli (ed.), La musa dimenticata: aspetti dell'esperienza musicale greca in età ellenistica. Seminari e convegni 21.   Pisa:  Edizioni della Normale, 2009.  Pp. xiv, 418.  ISBN 9788876423598.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Marchetti, Flint Hill School (


This volume, dedicated to the memory of Roberto Pretagostini, is a valuable resource for students and researchers. Its fifteen articles and three appendices in Italian, English, and French offer literary, papyrological, philosophical/theoretical, historical, and archaeological perspectives on ancient Greek music of the Hellenistic period.

In the first article of the collection, Pretagostini takes a confident maximalist approach to interpreting the literary content of lacunose passages, thus vividly evoking characters and situations of diverse Hellenistic settings for musical performances. He aims to construct a grid with occasions for musical performances on one axis and the thematic, performative, and structural characteristics of the songs performed on the other axis. Perhaps because the works of these poets are not sufficiently parallel under closer examination, this cannot be completely achieved. The strategy works well applied to the structure of the poets’ works, with the caveat that Theocritus represents a literary adaptation of the bucolic musical tradition rather than the literary imitation of musical hymns found in Callimachus. The occasions of performances depicted or imitated in the works of Callimachus can be studied individually through the archaeological remains of their physical settings, but most of the occasions depicted in Theocritus cannot be made specific in the same way. Although the thematic axis is incomplete, this article is useful for being a comprehensive collection of references to musical performance in these poets and a stimulating, thought-provoking read.

This volume P. Vat. Gr. 7, first published here by Martinelli and Pintaudi, is the fourth most extensive Ptolemaic musical papyrus. Though not enough remains of any one line to reveal any literary content, that fact that it combines notated and non-notated lines is a characteristic it has in common with DAGM 4 and DAGM 6.1 The script of P. Vat. Gr. 7 is similar to that of DAGM 6 in that it is more relaxed than that of DAGM 3 or DAGM 11, two papyri which West (2001:51) recognized as paleographically similar to each other. As emerges from Martinelli’s catalogue of papyri that contain notated and non-notated lines, another feature common to P. Vat. Gr. 7 and DAGM 6 is that the spacing between non-notated lines is narrower than that between the notated lines. In contrast, DAGM 4 shows the same spacing between notated and between non-notated lines. The visual affinity between P. Vat. Gr. 7 and DAGM 6 on the one hand and between DAGM 3 and DAGM 11 on the other hand evidences stratification in the production of musical papyri rather than merely individual variation between examples. The apparent difference in care or craftsmanship in production may be a function of different purposes or target audiences for these musical documents. The authors provide two excellent photographs of the papyrus, one lit and focused in such a way as to make the text stand out from the papyrus background, the other, a close-up of the lines with notation, is lit and focused in such a way as to make the texture of the papyrus and the edges of each character more sharply defined.

Martinelli’s article Testi musicati, testi per la musica highlights another category of text production, lyric papyri without musical notation that have in common with notated papyri the use of graphic signs and blank spaces to indicate different types or levels of separation within a text. Her catalogue of marks of separation in musical documents shows that her interpretation is based on a fair consideration of all the available evidence.

Carlo Pernigotti focuses on a group of fourteen musical papyri the visual characteristics of which seem to suggest something about the purposes for which they were produced. Pernigotti identifies three types that can be identified through definable visual characteristics. In one set, copies for use, the papyri seem to have been written rapidly by one hand; three of the eight examples offered by Pernigotti include revisions or variations on the melody.2 Presumably the composers or performers produced these without consideration of their legibility for others. A second group, library copies, comprises examples written neatly and carefully by one hand, presumably by professional copyists, without revisions or variations on the melody. A third group of imperial-era papyri, mixed copies feature poetic texts neatly laid out, presumably by professional copyists, with musical notation written more rapidly, presumably by the performer or composer of music to an existing text. None of the papyri in this group show extended spacing of syllables to make the notation easier to read, although both the other two groups do include examples with such expanded syllable spacing. A study exploring any connection between this peculiarity of the mixed copiesand the possibility of different musical settings for individual poetic texts, as attested in DAGM 56 (one of Pernigotti’s copies for use), would be just one of many lines of investigation suggested by this intriguing preliminary study.

Andrew Barker shows that post-Aristoxenian theorists did not consider the Aristoxenian or empirical approach to harmonic theory to be fundamentally incompatible with the Pythagorean or mathematical approach, but rather accepted the Pythagorean theory of concords while utilizing Aristoxenian terminology and concepts without regard for the logical contradictions implicit in such a strategy. Ptolemaïs of Cyrene and Didymus, both quoted by Porphyry in his commentary on Ptolemy’s harmonics, provide the earliest testimony for a first-century AD debate over the relationship between the Pythagorean and Aristoxenian approaches, a debate in which extremists for each side posited an irreconcilable dichotomy between them. Certainly Ptolemy himself champions the Pythagorean approach while debunking the Aristoxenian approach. However, Barker’s examination of the theorist Adrastus of Aphrodisias shows that the more syncretist approach continued at least through the end of the first century AD. Barker demonstrates that the concern of Ptolemaïs and Didymus for the relationship between the two theoretical approaches to harmonics is a reflection of a broader concern in Hellenistic philosophy for the concept of criterion. He is on less solid ground when he deemphasizes the original contradiction between the two approaches by qualifying Aristoxenus’s controversial claim that a fourth equals two and one half tones. Aristoxenus outlines a process by which a student can test whether the fourth equals two and a half tones, but treats the possibility that one would not reach this conclusion as a rhetorical foil to his reiteration of the test’s logical validity. Ironically, the procedure’s symmetry would tend to cancel out human errors that are random, consistently flat, consistently sharp, consistently too narrow or consistently too broad, thus reliably producing the discrepancy calculated by Ptolemy at Harmonics22-23.

Stefan Hagel convincingly synthesizes evidence from ancient music theory, archaeological remains of instruments, preserved documents of ancient music, and considerations of the physics of the aulos to create a striking portrayal of Hellenistic musical practice. A second-century model of an aulos (perhaps a funerary offering) represents the mechanism of sliders that can open or close holes beyond the reach of a player’s fingers, extending the musical range. While the model is incomplete, a statistical analysis of the highest notes of extant Hellenistic musical documents reveals that there was a standard high note during this era, and allows the reconstruction of the probable size and melodic range of the instrument. The use of mechanical sliders is consistent with the melodic profiles of several musical documents, which show flowing melodies in their upper ranges but sudden plunges into the lower range of their scales. Hagel also discusses how the melody of the Delphic Hymn by Athenaeus, DAGM20, utilized the capabilities of such auloi for melodic modulation. The article is very effective in shedding light on some factors that a Hellenistic composer would have in mind, based on the characteristics of the instruments on which a melody would be performed. This article includes eleven of the author’s signature clear and helpful diagrams.

Gioia Maria Rispoli examines the role of form in Ancient Greek music theory, particularly in Aristoxenus’s Elements of Harmony and Elements of Rhythm. She observes that for Aristotle, products of an art τέχνη exist in the mind of the producer prior to and as a cause for the production of their objects. Rispoli links Aristoxenus’s discussions of form in Elements of Rhythm and of synthesis in the Elements of Harmony with his concept of musical comprehension σύνθεσις for Aristoxenus, music embodies formal characteristics grasped through the cooperation of perception and intellect, διανοία. She then suggests that Cicero’s citation of Aristoxenus’s theory of the soul (Tusc., I, 10, 19) may have been based on a more extended treatment than Cicero reports. Aristoxenus’s position would have been that just as the formal qualities of music create an organic unity from diverse elements, so the soul unites diverse body parts into a living being.

Danielle Delattre recounts both sides of an argument between Dionysius of Babylon, a Stoic, and the Epicurean Philodemus. Philodemus quotes Dionysius of Babylon’s commendations of music as a source of direct connection with the gods and a link to all virtues, then criticizes his arguments in favor of his own Epicurean position that music is an unnecessary pleasure. For Dionysius, music deserves a central role in education, whereas for Epicurus learning to play music oneself is unworthy of a philosopher. At some places in the text, Dionysius’s arguments must be inferred from Philodemus’s criticisms. Delattre is a perceptive moderator to this dialogue, submitting Philodemus’s assertions to a clearly-reasoned examination.

Peter Wilson and Eric Csapo present a case that the agonothesia replaced the khoregia as a means of funding of Athenian Dionysia not, as is commonly understood, under the leadership of Demetrios of Phaleron, but through a longer process moving in several stages. The argument focuses on a decree (IG II2 551), which the authors date to 318/317, honoring a non-Athenian, Nikostratos, for his contributions to the Dionysia. A reference to his epimeleia probably indicates that his contributions were administrative; the khoregoi whom Nikostratos is praised for assisting are described as “in office”, a description found nowhere else. The authors suggest that the decree was worded this way because the oligarchic regime of 321-318 had replaced the traditional khoregoi with a single adminstrative manager for the Dionysia, which was enjoying a revival of prestige under the democratic regime of 318-317. The authors present their case persuasively, and in so doing depict a community responding to the changes in the nature of the polis and redefining a civic tradition in the attempt to reclaim it.

Luigi Beschi provides an overview of the development of the organ during the Hellenistic period. Invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the second half of the third century BC, its use in the Hellenistic age is described by Philo of Byzantium, Vitruvius, and Hero of Alexandria. Iconographic and archaeological evidence allows us to distinguish two major types: the large hydraulic organ used in contests and for accompaniment to public spectacles, and a smaller organ intended for domestic or indoor use, often operated by means of a bellows. An interesting example of the smaller organ is provided by a set of organ pipes found at Dion in Macedonia. An appendix by Christoph Stroux describes these pipes in detail, showing that their maker varied the ratio of the length and diameter in order to make their tonal quality match, demonstrating the experience-based sophistication of the organ-building tradition. This article is accompanied by ten photographs and illustrations.

Readers will find a wealth of information on music-related archaeological finds from the area around Tarentum, the musical tastes of Hellenistic audiences, evidence in the Aristotelian Problems for heterophony in Hellenistic music, and musical references among the fragments of Greek historical writers in the remaining articles of this rich, diverse collection. Due to space constraints I cannot discuss them further here.


1.   Here and throughout, DAGM refers to: Pöhlmann, E., & West, M. L. (2001). Documents of ancient Greek music: the extant melodies and fragments edited and transcribed with commentary. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
2.   The eight examples of copies for use are DAGM 39-40, 42-43, 44, 45, 48, 53-54, 56, 57; DAGM 39-40, 42-43, and 56 show variations in or additions to the melody.

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