BMCR 2016.01.39

Ancient Greek Writers on their Musical Past: Studies in Greek Musical Historiography. Syncrisis, 1

Andrew Barker, Ancient Greek Writers on their Musical Past: Studies in Greek Musical Historiography. Syncrisis, 1. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2014. 114. ISBN 9788862276894 €36.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The volume under review is a collection of six lectures presented by Andrew Barker at the University of Calabria in January 2013, with a brief introduction and more substantial conclusion written for this publication. These additions provide a methodological framework for the individual lectures, which function as case studies in the previously neglected area of Greek musical historiography. Andrew Barker has published extensively on ancient Greek music,1 and the breadth and depth of his knowledge are clearly displayed in this volume. However, since these essays originated as lectures, the bibliography and footnoting are necessarily minimal, as the author acknowledges in his introduction. Nevertheless, the strategically placed footnotes are sufficient to inform readers who lack the author’s easy familiarity with obscure and fragmentary Greek authors, and Barker’s conversational style recommends this collection to a wider audience than the title may suggest.

The first four chapters discuss the evidence for Greek musical historiography incorporated in pseudo-Plutarch’s De Musica, which Barker presents as a poorly arranged pastiche of prior theories and observations. The fifth and sixth chapters explore evidence from the Hellenistic period and Greek comedy, respectively. The final chapter, the methodological conclusion mentioned above, helps unify the historical breadth of the individual papers, and argues that these essays demonstrate a need for further research on the topic as a whole.

Barker’s first chapter, “Musical History in the Pseudo-Plutarchan De Musica,” attempts to untangle the competing musical traditions that underlie the speech of Lysias in Chapters 3-12, proceeding by a somewhat unusual method. Working from the fiction that pseudo-Plutarch actually attempted a logical organization of the material in these chapters, Barker is able to show that this supposition completely breaks down on closer analysis. His discussion reveals two competing traditions about the earliest period of Greek musical history: 1) a Hellenocentric approach, which focused on the development of kitharodic music and denied foreign influence on the development of Greek music; and 2) a contrasting perspective that freely acknowledged foreign influence (e.g., Orpheus and Olympus) and prioritized music written for the aulos.

Chapter 2, “Heraclides of Pontus and Glaucus of Rhegium,” turns to the explicit exploration of pseudo-Plutarch as compiler, rather than author, of Greek musical history. Barker focuses on tracing the origin of the individual historical assertions contained in Lysias’ speech, which he views as drawing on a greater number of sources than has traditionally been recognized. Barker further asserts that the confusion in pseudo-Plutarch’s account results from the vastly different methods and historical approaches of his sources, and from the opinions of even earlier musical historians incorporated by those authors. In this chapter, Barker generally prioritizes the discussion of Heraclides over his source, Glaucus, and in the concluding paragraphs, Barker reconstructs Heraclides’ presentation of musical history as a series of ‘first discoverers’ organized both chronologically and generically.

The third lecture deepens Barker’s engagement with Glaucus, but then moves into a discussion of two other fifth and fourth-century historians, Hellanicus and Ephorus, whom Barker sees as additional unnamed influences on De Musica. While the discussions of these three authors are not particularly well integrated, each individual analysis is useful in its own right. The most significant feature of this chapter is a penetrating discussion, framed as a reconstruction of Glaucus’ historical perspective, of how the defense of New Music and the strong reactions against it colored Greek attitudes towards their musical history. In this analysis, Barker first presents his position, developed at greater length in chapter 6, that the controversy (real or perceived) over the revolutionary status of the New Music obscured the fact that Greek musical practice and theory evolved continually through the Archaic and Classical periods.

In the fourth chapter, “Aristoxenus,” Barker turns to an examination of the Aristoxenian influences on De Musica, focusing his discussion on chapters 11, 16, and 19. He concludes that pseudo-Plutarch drew primarily upon two, possibly more, lost works of Aristoxenus, which he proposes covered the histories of performance and composition and developments in musical theory. As with Heraclides, Barker suggests that Aristoxenus’ organizing methodology was to construct sequences of ‘first discoverers’ in these areas. This lecture includes the most technical discussions of the book in terms of the treatment of specific questions of ancient musical theory (e.g., the structure of the Mixolydian mode on pages 60-61); however, Barker writes these passages with a non-specialist audience in mind, and they function principally as demonstrations of Aristoxenus’ historical preoccupations, namely his ongoing literary feud with the harmonikoi. Barker concludes with the dual observations that Aristoxenus’ musical writings covered “an extraordinarily wide range of subjects” (72) and that the surviving evidence from these texts suggests that his interest in musical history was “deployed in support of his own theoretical and ideological positions” (73).

In chapter 5, “Musical Historians of the Hellenistic Period”, Barker abandons his interrogation of pseudo-Plutarch for a necessarily synoptic overview of the many fragments that date from this period. Using carefully selected examples, he characterizes their primary interest as, not unlike our own, the reconstruction of a musical past which had become remote from current practice, focused on the elucidation of unfamiliar terms and practices. Barker emphasizes the philological contributions of the grammatikoi, but emphasizes that modern scholars should use caution in reliance on their interpretations. In his conclusion, Barker discusses the pervasive interest in the musical past that characterizes authors of the Hellenistic period more broadly, but also accentuates the significance of music and music history as separate fields of study in this period.

The sixth and final lecture included in this volume changes course considerably to investigate the reliability of the references to musical practices by Greek comic poets. Barker concludes that far more caution is warranted in accepting these passages as evidence for broadly accepted views, especially for fragments that lack their explicit dramatic context. He observes that, while the frequent satirization of New Music in comedy is generally attributed to the opinions of the poet, these attacks are often placed in the mouths of characters elsewhere presented as vulgar, unsophisticated, and/or unreliable, thus seriously problematizing the reconstruction of Greek perceptions of musical advances solely on comic sources. Barker concludes the chapter with a discussion of the improbability of New Music representing a sudden complete break with ‘traditional’ musical styles, as it is frequently represented in the polemical attitudes of contemporaneous Greek sources, and instead argues forcefully for continual musical development and evolution throughout the 6th, 5th, and 4th centuries BCE.

In his “Conclusions,” Barker first discusses the inherent difficulty of the very concept of Greek musical historians, primarily because of the tendency for authors in a wide variety of genres to write tangentially or directly about musical history. He therefore advises that each specific source requires careful consideration of its context and the purposes of its author(s) prior to the assessment of the historical and musical validity of its assertions. Barker then returns to his contention that Greek musical historiography is a necessary and worthwhile field of study in its own right and as an ancillary to more generalized historical and cultural research, concluding the volume with a strongly worded call for ongoing systematic inquiry.

It is unfortunate that this monograph, because of its highly specialized content, is unlikely to be widely disseminated, since Barker presents a methodologically nuanced approach to his subject. The approach Barker both recommends and enacts could easily benefit any specialty drawing on fragmentary and temporally dispersed evidence, particularly the study of other specialized τέχναι. Among Barker’s many noteworthy observations, the most significant is his contention that Greek musical history remains a moving target because musical styles, technologies, and preferences evolved substantially over the nine or ten centuries that comprise ancient Greek music.

Ancient Greek Writers on their Musical Past is a well laid-out and constructed volume with no obvious typographical errors.

Table of Contents

1. Musical History in the Pseudo-Plutarchan De Musica
2. Heraclides of Pontus and Glaucus of Rhegium
3. Musical Historiography, 430-330 BC: Glaucus (Revisited), Hellanicus, Ephorus
4. Aristoxenus
5. Musical Historians of the Hellenistic Period
6. Comic Dramatists and the Construction of Greek Musical History
7. Conclusions
Bibliography of Cited Works
Index of Names


1. In addition to numerous articles, his principal publications include: The Science of Harmonics in Classical Greece, Cambridge University Press 2007; La psicomusicologia nella Grecia antica (tr. Angelo Meriani), Alfredo Guida Editore, Naples 2005; Euterpe: Ricerche sulla musica greca e romana (tr. Eleonora Rocconi), Edizioni ETS, Pisa 2002; Scientific Method in Ptolemy’s Harmonics Cambridge University Press 2000; Greek Musical Writings, vol.1, The Musician and His Art, Cambridge University Press 1984 and vol. 2, Harmonic and Acoustic Theory, Cambridge University Press 1989.