BMCR 1999.11.06

Music in Ancient Greece and Rome

, Music in ancient Greece and Rome. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. xii, 296 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415167765. $85.00.

These are heady days for the study of Greek music. When R. I. Winnington-Ingram published his still useful, indeed often brilliant, research into technical problems of Greek music theory and practice (largely before the second world war), it was a subject very much reserved for a few consenting and obsessive adults. The technical requirements of the subject remain fiercely rebarbative — there are not many scholars who can claim to read Aristides Quintilianus with much fluency, pleasure or easy comprehension — and the tendency to retreat to abstruse and highly contentious topics of debate is still readily succumbed to. And delighted in. But the last dozen years have witnessed a remarkable growth of interest and publication on what is a central aspect of Greek culture. Gentili and Pretagostini in 1988 edited a collection in Italian, La Musica in Grecia, which contained articles by several European scholars who have gone on to open up the field (and Gentili and Perusino put together a volume focused more closely on metrics and music). Maas and Snyder in 1989 offered an extended monograph on the stringed instruments of Greece. Bernhard Zimmermann has produced a learned volume dedicated to the dithyramb. Warren Anderson has written a synoptic view in his Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece, and two English scholars, Andrew Barker and M. L. West, have done perhaps more than anyone to make the texts of ancient musical theory and appreciation readily available and also to provide a solid and intelligent framework for the comprehension of that theory and its relation to musical production. Music formed a crucial thread of Greek cultural life, and although Aristides Quintilianus will not, I expect, be finding his way on to too many student reading lists, it is now possible to study this fundamental element of Greek social life from an informed position in a way that was quite impossible even fifteen years ago.

John Landels has produced what he claims is a modest introduction to this fascinating area for the student of classical civilization or of musical history (although at $85.00 it is unlikely to reach many students). The book is indeed shorter and less continuously technical than West’s standard account (with which Landels frequently agrees and only rarely and in small matters disagrees); it is far more lavishly illustrated than Barker or West, and includes chapters on ‘Music in Greek Life, Poetry and Drama’ and ‘Music and Myth’ — which seem to be aimed at the student of civilization or culture in general — as well as chapters on the developments of musical practice and theory through Hellenistic Greece into ‘The Roman Musical Experience’, which gives a useful frame for the historian of music. The central, longest and most dense chapters, however, are all focused on the complexities of Greek musical theory, acoustic science and the Realien of ancient instruments. Landels is best known for his work on ancient Greek engineering; and for the scholar who has already worked through the bibliography on ancient music, this book is most novel in its focus on the physicality of Greek instruments and their production of sound. Drawings of the water-organ and the moving parts of an aulos certainly help visualize and understand what can be otherwise difficult discussion. Indeed, Landels seems most engaged when bringing modern and ancient technical achievement together, and it is in this particular area that historians of music will find this work most stimulating. In general, the information provided is reliable (where that is possible) and sharply presented. A sense of the vast range of Greek musical performance and of the complexities of the questions of musical technique emerge well.

So, what will the student of Greek culture get or miss from this project — and what does it tell us of the status quaestionis in the study of ancient music? The student will get a detailed understanding of the shape and form of instruments, a survey of musical and acoustic theory, with particular attention to details of scales, tuning and periods rather than the more general ethical theorizing of Plato or the wilder claims of Aristides Quintilianus. This understanding is a necessary, if hard won, part of comprehending music in ancient Greek society.

But what the student will not get from Landels, nor indeed from West or the other doyens of the field, is anything approaching an adequate cultural analysis. The chapters here (as in West’s account) on ‘music in Greek life’ and on ‘music and myth’ are jejeune in the extreme. There is no real awareness of the range of relevant material (both ancient and modern) and little attempt to appreciate the range of questions raised in trying to explore the role of music in a cultural context. Like West, Landels seems to think that a list of performance venues and texts that mention music, constitutes cultural history.

So, to take one brief but paradigmatic example, the Homeric Hymn to Hermes is mentioned because it describes the invention of the tortoise shell lyre. Landels offers a few lines of re-telling the story in the barest (and quite misleading) outline. We do not get any sense of what the poem is for; who sang/read it, when or for what purpose; what the date of the poem might be (it is often placed in the Hellenistic period, but this is highly contested); and, above all, what the significance of this wonderfully intricate narrative might be. Why is it Hermes — the tricksy god of deceitful communication — who invents the lyre, which is to become Apollo’s emblematic instrument? What does this particular story of invention tell us about music’s role in Greek ideas of sophia and techne ? Does it help us understand the social import of lyre playing? What should we make of a hymn which highlights the invention of a musical instrument? This poem, what is more, has been well analysed (from a structuralist point of view) by Laurence Kahn, and, from different perspectives, by others including Jenny Clay, who would rightly insist on seeing this poem in relation to the other hymns — but not one of these important studies appears in Landels’ bibliography. This small but telling example demonstrates that analysing music’s role in culture through cultural products simply cannot be adequately pursued in the very restricted manner in which historians of music have hitherto attempted.

By way of contrast, one could cite one of the most recent contributions which takes the debate in a different and far more promising direction. Peter Wilson (in Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy edited by Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne — to mark my parti pris) offers a lengthy study of the aulos that is not merely informed on matters of technique but also sophisticated in its analysis of the discourse of the aulos. It seeks not merely to see the different places the aulos is played, but also to analyze how those different performances are part of a system of thought — an element of a culture. Partly in response to such questions, this year a remarkable international conference under the title Mousike was held at Warwick University in England, organized by Penny Murray and Peter Wilson. The sessions looked at all aspects of the social, political, religious and artistic role of music and dance in Greek culture. No fewer than three papers had the subtitle ‘The Politics of the New Music’ — and it is striking that one could read Landels (or West or Barker) without engaging with the question of what made the fifth-century revolution in music so exciting, threatening and important in socio-political terms — which is how we encounter it in comedy, philosophy and the anecdotal tradition. (As if rock and roll as a phenomenon was best approached through the tuning of the bass guitar … or the violence over The Rite of Spring should be explained through its scoring.) In a similar turn towards social and cultural history, there were also at Warwick brilliant discussions of, say, religious processional songs or Socrates’ private dancing, and a whole host of interrelated performances and representations of performances. Papers from this conference will appear in book form shortly, and it promises to be a fine and influential volume.

It will be an influential volume, I predict, because it will mark a turning point in understanding music as a Greek cultural product. Such cultural analysis builds on the fine technical understandings already achieved to begin to formulate and to answer the absolutely central questions which have not yet been posed by historians of music in the ancient world. It is typical — regrettably — that Landels does not address the categories of his project. The word ‘music’ derives from the Greek mousike, but that term includes much more than the English expression implies. Landels (like West) scarcely mentions dance, although choros indicates the integral link of music and dance, nor does he reflect on the language of ‘singing’ which informs what we term ‘poetry’. Music theory — which features so largely — is considered without any social analysis of the sophoi who produced it — despite the demonstration of e.g. Geoffrey Lloyd that such a cultural context is crucial for understanding Greek intellectual production.

It is both important and necessary to do the hard work required to understand the technical elements of ancient musical theory and practice — and Landels adds a useful and sparky contribution to the line of scholarship maintained so ably by Barker, West and others. But understanding music as an element within a culture — as both Landels and West claim to do — requires the equally hard work of developing an adequate cultural analysis. In Landels’ project, as in West’s, there is a striking and worrying contrast between a compelling sophistication in certain technical matters and a disturbing naiveté in historical or cultural analysis. Landel’s work sums up well enough the considerable scholarly achievements of the last few years of research into ancient music — but the field is developing fast into new questions, new understandings for which this introduction already seems quite insufficient. Indeed, without a broader ranging and more sophisticated approach to historical research, the study of ancient music as a cultural phenomenon will always seem — as Aeschines taunted Demosthenes — ‘to be an aulos without a reed’. The very importance of mousike and choros in Greek life demands good, scholarly, cultural history, and there are signs (though not in this book) that such a picture is being developed in the most stimulating and informed way by classicists. These are indeed heady days for the study of Greek mousike.