BMCR 2003.04.08

Ancient Greek Music; Documents of Ancient Greek Music

, Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 410 pages. ISBN 9780191586859
, , Documents of Ancient Greek Music; the extant melodies and fragments edited and transcribed with commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001. 222 pages. ISBN 9780198152231

A quiet revolution has been astir in the study of ancient Greek music over the last generation. Two landmark events stand out from among many contributions. First is the publication in 1992 of Martin Litchfield West’s Ancient Greek Music (hereafter AGM). This book is the best on the subject—period. The book is also my nomination for the best book in the field of Classics in the 1990’s. Breathtakingly learned, brilliantly written, AGM puts forward a fresh compilation and analysis of nearly all aspects of ancient music in 400 pages, and in such an easy and modest way that the non-specialist is readily deceived into thinking this all old hat. But it is hardly that: instead, a radically clear and embracing view of how thousands of scattered and often arcane details in ancient poetry, ancient philosophy, technical texts, papyri, inscriptions, ethnomusicology, and elsewhere can be combined so as to yield a sense of what ancient music was like and how it changed over time. Read with attention and care, AGM not only will teach the reader a great deal about music but also will transform fundamentally the ways in which one views the archaic and classical “poetry” that we all know, but seldom deeply appreciate, to have been mostly sung. Ancient Greek Music was not originally the book under review here, but some remark has seemed necessary since the book came out to surprisingly little notice among all but specialists. Despite the Oxford University Press imprint, the book was not included in BMCR or Classical Review, nor was it reviewed in any leading Classics journal, excepting a review that appeared almost a decade after the event.1 I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It’s certainly not the case that music is or should be of marginal interest to ancient Greek culture or those who study that culture. Nor is my own evaluation of AGM idiosyncratic. Of the few reviews written, one (Beeman) begins, “after several attempts to write this review I finally gave up trying to do justice to this prodigious work”; another (Feaver) concludes, “West’s book is a monument of classical and musicological achievement and will serve as the standard reference work on the subject of Greek music for generations to come.”

One of the reasons that AGM is such an important book has to do with West’s thorough and integrated use of the ancient musical documents—particularly papyri and inscriptions—in producing a convincing and rounded view of changing musical tastes in the ancient Greek world. That leads us to the second landmark event in the study (or rather reconstruction) of ancient Greek music in the last generation, which is the publication of a surprising number of new fragments of ancient Greek melody. Since E. Pöhlmann’s standard 1970 edition of the musical documents, Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik, the number of musical fragments has ballooned, from 35 to 61, including several published even since the compendious 1992 catalogue included in AGM. This miracle of new evidence, mostly from the sands of Egypt, is what occasions the new edition, Documents of Ancient Greek Music (hereafter DAGM), a welcome joint effort by Pöhlmann and West.2

DAGM contains for each fragment the Greek text, the Greek musical notation (normally written above the Greek text on the papyrus), a reasonably thorough apparatus criticus, a transcription into modern staff notation, and a brief, technical commentary. Photographs are included of documents without readily accessible plates. These are fragmentary documents, and mostly very small fragments, with all that entails. The Greek texts bristle with the usual uncertainties that accompany fragmentary literary texts; the melodic notation is yet worse, since there is far less guidance where the reading on the papyrus or stone is uncertain; the commentary by necessity must range into a host of technical considerations involving, for instance, sticky details of rhythm as well as of music and text. The commentary, in particular, is not for the uninitiated. There are, to be sure, tidbits that will appeal to all. We find how typical tragic exclamations like ἰώ μοι, ἒ ἕ, and ἰὼ πόποι might be sung (DAGM, 22ff). The infectiously brilliant writing of West’s AGM is not generally in evidence here, but there are moments, such as the amusing history of the stele containing the Seikilos epitaph (DAGM, 90). But this is not bedtime reading; rather, a major new edition of a group of fragments important for our understanding of antiquity.

DAGM contains a fundamental re-appraisal of editio princeps and subsequent discussion of each fragment. There is hardly a page without a fresh suggestion (excepting West’s recent POxy publications, which are understandably only lightly reedited). The re-appraisal extends to long-known fragments. The 1992 re-editing by Annie Bélis of two Paeans to Apollo from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi ( Corpus des inscriptions de Delphes ιιἰ, itself a quantum-leap improvement in our understanding of these important texts, is already improved in many places. We now finally have an edition worth the name for one of our earliest fragments of Greek music, a badly damaged papyrus fragment of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis (Pap. Leiden inv. P. 510). The detailed reexamination of the manuscript tradition of Mesomedes (DAGM, 105ff) is a good example of how fundamentally these editors have reevaluated even the best-known documents. West and Pöhlmann have left no stone unturned in the collecting of all known (or rumored) pieces. With a recent spurt of publications West has now, apparently, exhausted the musical fragments in the Oxford papyrus collections;3 the editors arranged to acquire advance notice of the most recent publications elsewhere; and they managed to secure permission from Martin Schyen to include an as-yet unpublished papyrus in his personal collection.

The editing is often bold. Most of that appears to be due to Martin West (judging from the app. crit.), and those familiar with West’s editing style will not be surprised. The text abounds with brilliant or plausible suggestions, but at times the judgment seems to tip towards over-boldness, a tendency to raise plausible speculation from apparatus to the text, particularly as regards uncertain musical notes. For most fragments, the edition is based on autopsic re-collation against the original by one or both editors, and in those cases one must nod to the editors’ expert judgments. But at times the editors appear to be dependent on photographs, and yet remain surprisingly unhesitant to correct the autopsic examination of the original editors. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I note with embarrassment that the editors correct an error that crept into my edition of the Yale musical papyrus that I published in 2000.4 Still, autopsy remains an important issue, and yet the editors are not always clear whether they have personally examined a piece or not. An example: the edition incorporates three readings proposed by West in ZPE 92 (1992) 5 for Pap. Zenon 59533 (DAGM No. 8, p. 41), but neither in the ZPE article nor in DAGM is it made clear whether these are based on photograph or personal inspection. At least one (reading ]ε for ]δων in line 3) seems implausible, judging from the fact that one expects a gap between ε and ων if West were correct (this musical papyrus text otherwise shows noticeable gaps between every syllable in the text). Our evaluation of such details would be helped if we knew in every case whether the editors’ judgment were based on personal inspection, or on the photograph available to us all.

With that caveat, I wish quickly to return to accolade. The technical mastery necessary to achieve such an edition is hard to overstate, and we are indeed very fortunate to have two such expert guides through the many difficulties of poetic, metrical, rhythmic, and musical interpretation. Indeed, as I reflect on the situation, perhaps one reason that West’s 1992 book, AGM, has received such shameful lack of attention may have to do with the technical and terminological hurdles that the reader eventually faces in the study of ancient music. AGM is a marvel of instruction, but a great deal of hard work is required if the reader is to absorb the whole. The book both boasts and succeeds in taking the musicless reader by small steps into an understanding of the fundamentals of ancient instruments, music, musical culture and theory, but eventually the reader finds him- or herself in a rather strange world where pitch notation, as opposed to the comfortable transparency of modern notations, resembles an alphabetic soup; where moving up along the notes of a particular key seems weirdly akin to deciphering a subway map (see AGM, 257); and where we learn to think clear an explanation like, “in other words, with either a conjunct or a disjunct tetrachord above Mesê” (AGM, 221)— just as, for a Classicist (but hardly anyone else), it is clear to speak about an aorist participle or an absolute construction. Now in the case of AGM, the reader can skim or skip the most technical sections, and still get a lot from the book. For DAGM, full command of the technical details and terminology is routinely assumed. DAGM will stand as the basic edition for the Greek musical documents for a long time. For specialists, of course, DAGM is a fundamental resource. For most non-specialists, AGM will remain the book to turn to. But everyone with a serious interest in Greek poetry will, I hope and expect, want to sing or play the transcribed melodies (inadequate as that is for any reconstruction, and fragmentary as they are), and to read through the Greek text and (at least parts of) the commentary to get a sense of how the music relates to the “poetry” and the culture. Indeed Pöhlmann and West’s DAGM makes clear what sort of mastery of detail, and what seamless integration between literary, papyrological, epigraphic, and musicological evidence, West’s earlier book, AGM, proffers. The next time someone says that we don’t really know anything about ancient Greek music, pluck these two books off the shelf and suggest some self-improvement.


1. D. Feaver, AJPh 122 (2001) 436-440. A capsule review by Jon Solomon did appear in CW 89 (1995-6) 493-4; and an interesting essay (“A Distant Music”) by Otto Steinmayer in Arion 3rd ser. 4 (1996-7) 223-236 used West’s book as a launching point. William O. Beeman, an anthropologist and professional opera singer, wrote a review for the on-line journal Didaskalia (volume 1, issue 5, December 1994). A couple of reviews have appeared in musicological journals: André Barbera, Notes 50 (1994) 1359-1361; E. Kerr Borthwick, Music and Letters 74 (1993) 562-4. I have not been able to see the review in the curiously-named periodical 1/1, The Journal of the Just Intonation Network 8 (1994) 2-3, by John H. Chalmers Jr.

2. E. Pöhlmann, Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik Nuremberg 1970. Counts and definition of “fragments” as in DAGM, 6.

3. “Texts with Musical Notation,” POxy 55 (1998) nos. 4461-7; “Sophocles with Music(?). Ptolemaic Music Fragments and Remains of Sophocles (Junior?), Achilles,” ZPE 126 (1999) 43-65.

4. William A. Johnson, “Musical Evenings in the Early Empire: New Evidence from a Greek Papyrus with Musical Notation,” JHS 120 (2000) 57-85 = DAGM no. 41. The error is the fifth note of col. i, line 2 (in my hand transcripts I too read backwards gamma for phi; I thank Robert G. Babcock for kindly re-confirming this reading on the papyrus). Examples of bold readings elevated to the text are the two instances of chi read at col. i, line 4. Note that in the re-editing of this papyrus the alignment of column two has gone awry in DAGM : the left of this column is flush, i.e. there is no indentation at col. ii, lines 8-10, or ekthesis at col. ii, line 3.