BMCR 2013.10.64

Atti del Seminario Internazionale di Studio Poesia, canto, accompagnamento strumentale nel De musica attribuito a Plutarco

Bruno Gentili, Atti del Seminario Internazionale di Studio Poesia, canto, accompagnamento strumentale nel De musica attribuito a Plutarco, Università della Calabria - Dipartimento di Filologia, Rende 26 - 28 novembre 2009. Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica, Nuova serie 99, N. 3, 2011 (Vol. 128 della serie continue)​. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2012. ISBN 00334987 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is provided at the end of the review.]

The volume under review collects contributions presented at an international conference on the De Musica attributed to Plutarch that was held at the University of Calabria in 2009. As a quick glance at the table of contents shows, the essays comprised in this collection examine this important text for the study of ancient Greek music from a wide variety of perspectives, following different methodologies with varying degrees of success. Given that it would be impossible to discuss all contributions in detail in this review, I will comment on a selection of the papers I found especially interesting and useful.

The first section of the book, entitled ‘Poetry and Music’, opens with Egert Pöhlmann’s valuable examination of the peculiar status of the De Musica as a text that, although treating musical questions often from a technical point of view, does not employ any form of musical notation. As Pöhlmann shows convincingly, this may be determined on the one hand by the nature of the early sources on which the text relies, such as Glaucus of Regium, Heraclides Ponticus, Plato, Aristotle and Aristoxenus: unlike their later followers, as far as we know these authors did not use musical notations and relied largely on oral tradition. On the other hand, however, the absence of musical notation from the De Musica may be explained also by the intention of this treatise, which consists in discussing the subtleties of different musical styles – a task that cannot be undertaken by means of ancient musical notation, which for instance did not distinguish the enharmonic and chromatic genus. For this reason, as Pöhlmann writes, this treatise may be rightly regarded as a ‘history of the oral tradition of ancient Greek music’.

A similar approach informs Antonietta Gostoli’s essay, which argues that the De Musica offers a history of lyric poetry, from pre-Homeric epic to the ‘New Dithyramb’, that represents a significant response to Aristotle’s Poetics. After a learned though not uncontroversial discussion of different modes of performance of lyric, epic and iambic poetry, which analyses especially testimonies related to Terpander and Archilochus, and a few rather simplistic considerations on Plato’s approach to mousike, Gostoli shows how the De Musica not only offers additional content that integrates the information presented by Aristotle, but rejects the Aristotelian definition of poetry as ‘technique of narrative verisimilitude’ (40, ‘tecnica del verisimile narrativo’). According to Gostoli, this definition leads Aristotle to ignore almost completely ‘elocutory’ types of poetry (41) and focus instead entirely on narrative ones in his Poetics – an approach that is rejected and overturned in the De Musica.

Andrew Barker’s stimulating essay examines one of the central figures mentioned in the De Musica, Olympus, commenting specifically on the type of musical compositions and musical styles attributed to him by the author of the treatise; as specified in the opening section of this paper, Barker takes the testimony of the De Musica not as reliable evidence about music from the period of a ‘historical’ individual named Olympus but as evidence about what kind of music was believed to be his in the 5th and 4th century. After providing a concise overview of what melodic, harmonic and rhythmical features are associated with Olympus in the treatise, Barker concentrates on the role of the note Nete Synemmenon, showing how on the basis of its use two categories of musical compositions may be distinguished which differ markedly in their ethos. On the one hand there are ‘Dorian’ compositions, similar in nature to the Spondeion scale and the Spondeiazon tropos,1 which employed the note Nete Synemmenon only in the auletic accompaniment and not in the melodic line: as we are told explicitly in the treatise, ‘anyone who employed it in the melody would be ashamed because of the resulting ethos ’ ( De Musica 1137c4-5). On the other hand, however, in Olympus’ Phrygian compositions, such the Metroia performed in honour of the Mother Goddess, this note was employed both in the accompaniment and in the melodic line, ‘evidently without detriment to the relevant ethos ’ (49). In addition to these two musical types, also laments and a considerable number of nomoi were attributed to Olympus in the 5th and 4th century – all types of music that, as the final sections of this essay show with clarity, differed significantly in terms of ethos and the emotional impact they had on listeners. Moreover, Barker shows how Plato’s remarks on Olympus’ music must refer to his Phrygian aulodic compositions, which Aristotle associates explicitly with the experience of enthusiasmos, and concludes that these and not the austere Spondeia may have been the most well-known kind of music associated with the name of Olympus in the Classical age.

Moving to the second section of this volume, devoted to ‘Musical Theory and Aesthetics’, Eleonora Rocconi’s contribution focuses on Chapters 22-25 of the De Musica, which analyse the relationship between musical and cosmic harmonia. After showing in detail how the author of the treatise combined earlier Pythagoreanising materials (which can be found in Plato, Aristotle, Philolaus, Heraclides Ponticus and Aristoxenus) to produce a coherent assemblage, Rocconi discusses some possible sources of such a collection of materials. After mentioning Barker’s hypothesis that we should identify the source as Aristotle’s lost treatise on ‘excerpts from the Timaeus and from the works of Archytas’ (Τὰ ἐκ τοῦ Τιμαίου καὶ τῶν Αρχυτείων), Rocconi argues that one likely candidate may be Plutarch’s Περὶ τῆς ἐν τῷ Τιμαίῳ ψυχογονίας ( De Animae Procreatione in Timaeo). In favour of this possibility, Rocconi notes among other things that the use of the term ψυχογονία ( De Musica 1138c) is not attested before Plutarch’s essay. Alternatively, Rocconi argues that another strong candidate may be Adrastus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. This possibility is supported not only by his harmonic studies, quoted by Porphyry and probably by Theon of Smyrna, but also by his interest both in Platonic and Aristotelian theories, which may have led him to put more emphasis on the similarities than on the differences between their approaches (113-114) – that is to say, the same attitude reflected in Chapters 22-25 of the De Musica.

Another very useful piece by Egert Pöhlmann addresses the much-debated question of how to interpret the puzzling references in Pherecrates’ Chiron (PCG 155= De Musica 1141d-1142a) to Melanippides’ and Timotheus’ use of ‘twelve chordai ’ on their instruments and to Phrynis’ mysterious strobilos. As regards the first question, after reconstructing the possible sexual connotation of the word chorde, Pöhlmann argues that the reference to twelve ‘strings’ may be also explained as an allusion to particularly elaborate sexual practices mentioned by Aristophanes at Ran. 1327-1328. On the interpretation of the word strobilos, Pöhlmann presents an innovative hypothesis (127-130) according to which Phrynis’ device should be identified with tuning pegs similar to those recently excavated in Leucas. Differently from their Hellenistic counterparts, these tuning pegs do not require a key to be turned but can be adjusted simply by the player’s fingers and, therefore, may be associated with Phrynis’ ‘turnable device’, which allowed the player to create several harmoniai with a limited number of strings.

Very thought-provoking is also Massimo Raffa’s study of De Musica 1145d-f, where the famous Homeric scene depicting Achilles singing to the accompaniment of his lyre is mentioned in order to show what kind of music is appropriate for a hero. According to the author of the treatise, the effect of music on Achilles’ soul is two-fold: on the one hand, it helps him ‘digest his anger’ towards Agamemnon, on the other it keeps his soul ‘sharp’, that is to say ready to go back to war. While the first result is linked by Raffa directly to the Homeric text, the second unusual characterisation is interpreted in the light of Seneca’s Troades 830-835, where Chiron is depicted as a music teacher who, with his war songs, was able to ‘sharpen’ Achilles’ rage. In the last sections of his contribution, Raffa focuses on the role of Chiron in Greek educational debates, brilliantly showing how it evolved over time: while in the Homeric poems and more generally in early Greek poetry the Centaur is mentioned only as a teacher of medicine, in the 5th-4th century he starts acquiring wider ethical and specifically musical traits – a process that will be completed fully in the Roman Imperial age, when the figures of Achilles and Chiron had a central role in the debate on music and ethos (171-175).

Up to now in referring to the treatise, I have refrained from characterising it as Pseudo-Plutarchean because of the essays contained in the third section on authorship which, interestingly, present two opposite cases. On the one hand Maria Cannatà Fera denies the attribution of this treatise to Plutarch, providing a meticulous examination of linguistic and stylistic traits as well as formulas employed in this text and comparing them with Plutarch’s corpus in general. On the other Gennaro d’Ippolito defends the Plutarchean origin of this treatise, rejecting the criteria traditionally followed in assessing the authenticity of a text (208). D’Ippolito persuasively argues that these criteria are based on several undemonstrated principles: a) works by the same author display ‘always the same style’ throughout his/her life, independently of the literary genre of each specific work; b) an author is always equally capable of producing texts that meet his/her highest literary standards; c) works by the same author must be conceptually coherent throughout different stages of life and in different historical contexts. Following a revised set of criteria offered on page 209, D’Ippolito shows in detail how the objections normally raised against the authenticity of this treatise are either unsupported or, at best, not decisive and concludes that, although it is not possible to prove positively the Plutarchean origin of this text, it is equally impossible to demonstrate its spuriousness. While the inclusion of these two essays in this collection is very useful, it is unfortunate that they do not address each other’s arguments explicitly: this addition would have made this valuable comparison between the two main approaches to the question of authorship of the treatise even more useful.

With regard to the last section of this volume, on ‘Transmission and Reception’, Angelo Meriani’s examination of Carlo Valgulio’s Latin translation of the De Musica deserves particular attention. Given that this translation was published before the appearance of the first printed edition of Plutarch’s Moralia, in this study Meriani aims at identifying which manuscripts were used by Valgulio and does so by comparing in detail the Latin translation with different textual variants attested in a selected group of manuscripts. Thanks to this minute philological examination, integrated with historical observations about the musical context in which Valgulio operated as well as by biographical notes, Meriani argues convincingly that the translator, despite having access to several Greek manuscripts of the De Musica now housed at the Vatican Library, relied instead on three manuscripts – namely Laur. Plut, 58, 29 (q), Par. Gr. 2451, ex. Med. Reg. 2717 (s) and Vindob. Phil. Gr. 176 (v) – that he read during his residence in Tuscany and Venice in the 1470s.

In conclusion, this collection represents a valuable addition to the steadily growing scholarship on ancient Greek music: it analyses from very different angles the complex musical and textual questions raised by the De Musica, integrating results from different scholarly fields, and provides several innovative solutions to them.

This handsome and well-printed volume regrettably contains numerous typographical mistakes and other minor editorial problems.2 While this does not constitute a significant obstacle for the reader, it becomes quite disturbing in the long run. Ironically, on the last page of this book the publishing house advertises its own book-long guide to the best editorial and typographical practices, ending with the following words: ‘especially in collections of texts by multiple authors, it is unfortunately not unusual to find in the same volume texts that follow different editorial principles […] this is editorial sloppiness, although sometimes it is not easy to overcome it’.

Table of Contents

Poesia e musica
Egert Pöhlmann, Ps. Plutarch, De musica. A History of Oral Tradition of Ancient Greek Music
Antonietta Gostoli, Da Demodoco a Timoteo: una storia della lirica greca nel De musica attribuito a Plutarco
Andrew Barker, The Music of Olympus
Manuela Giordano, Gli dei nel De musica
Matilde Ferrario, Parola e musica in ‘Plutarco’ e in Filodemo
Mariella De Simone, Dalla musica antica alla ‘nuova’: innovazioni e riprese nel racconto storico del De musica pseudo-plutarcheo

Estetica e teoria musicale
Eleonora Rocconi, Psychike e ourania harmonia: alcune ipotesi sulle fonti di Ps. Plut. De mus. 1138c, 1140b
Egert Pöhlmann, Twelve Chordai and the Strobilos of Phrynis in the Chiron of Pherecrates (PCG fr. 155)
Liana Lomiento, Riflessioni critiche sul concetto di ‘appropriatezza’ nel De musica dello Ps. Plutarco (De mus. 32-36)
Adelaide Fongoni, Alternanza delle armonie nei Misi di Filosseno (Ps. Plut. De mus. 33, 1142ef)
Massimo Raffa, Il canto di Achille (Ps. Plut. De mus. 40, 1145d-f)
Paolo Emilio Carapezza, La teoria e la pratica: la poetica di Aristosseno nel De musica 32-36 e gl’Inni delfici

Maria Cannatà Fera, Plutarco nel De musica
Gennaro D’Ippolito, Il De musica nel corpus plutarcheo: una paternità recuperabile

Tradizione e fortuna
Angelo Meriani, Carlo Valgulio e il testo del De musica
Donatella Restani, Il De musica attribuito a Plutarco e Girolamo Mei
Paola Volpe Cacciatore, “Qual è la migliore musica, l’antica o la moderna?”: Pietro Metastasio e il De musica
Diana De Bartolo, La fortuna dei Moralia in età moderna


1. The author had already examined in detail these harmonic structures in previous publications: see esp. Barker, A. (2007) The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece. Cambridge: 99-101 and 297.

2. Apart from typos, the transliteration of Greek names is inconsistent (e.g. Aristoxenos/Aristoxenus) and internal cross-references, especially between footnotes, are often wrong. This is especially true in English texts (including abstracts), which would have also benefited from being edited by a native speaker.