Desmond Dupre (for many years the lutanist of the Deller Consort) used to say that the lute was to the 17th century what the harpsichord was to the 18th century, the spinet to the 19th, and the gramophone to our own age. Americans listen to music (or the synthetic equivalent) all day long, but few of us play our own music, and if we do, it is either because we hope to make a living some day playing thrash guitar on strings pre-tuned to an E chord, or because we have bound our children to a Japanese cult-leader named Suzuki.

What music meant to the Greeks, we can scarcely conceive of it, even those of us who in the course of a day are forced to endure the sound of the Beatles from the girls’ room. Nine Inch Nails from the boys’, a Clementi sonatina from the piano in the living room, and, from the kitchen radio, DJs Bob and Bill quarreling over the imagined merits of Gary Grafman’s mechanical performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto.

For the Greeks, Mousike (sc. techne) was the art presided over by the Muses, and although the term might be applied broadly enough to signify what some people mean by “the arts,” it was more typically restricted to the preeminent Greek art of singing words to the accompaniment to some form of lyre or aulos (a wind, usually reed instrument). Greeks sang at weddings and funerals, at athletic games and religious festivals, at dinners and drinking parties. They composed songs to worship their gods, to honor their heroes, to praise their friends, and—it goes without saying—to confess their love. Erotic passion was not, however, their only theme: “O! know, sweet love, I always write of you, / And you and love are still my argument.”

Alcaeus (one of the greatest lyric poets) would not have known what to do with Shakespeare’s Petrarchan commonplace. He wrote of love, true, but he also wrote of war and politics and the pleasures of drinking and plotting revolution with his friends (subjects much more congenial to a man in his prime). If asked what the subject of poetry was, he might have answered “all of life,” an answer which, in fairness, Shakespeare could also have given.

What we vaguely call the lyric poems of Sappho and Anacreon, as well as the choral lyric poems of Pindar and the Greek dramatists, were in fact songs. In this sense, Aeschylus’ Oresteia comes closer to being an opera than a play (the earliest operas were composed as recreations of ancient music-drama), and some (although by no means all) of the nonsense that has been written about Greek tragedy comes from the failure to treat the lyric sections as musical texts. It is easy to forget this fact, because—apart from a phrase or two of Euripides—the music of Greek lyric poetry is lost, probably irretrievably.

Alas, the entire corpus of surviving Greek musical texts can be printed in a very slim volume, including the learned commentaries which almost never succeed in explaining anything except to the handful of scholars who already have written on the subject. To most classical scholars, including those who write on lyric and dramatic poetry, ancient music is a closed book; and, if I may be allowed a personal comment, after 30 years of desultory efforts to pry the book open, I can safely say that my own fingers are stuck securely into the chapters on rhythm.

The problem is fairly obvious: How does one deal with a tradition of technical theory, when there is virtually no body of evidence to practice on? Imagine a disembodied intelligence trying to understand Aristotle’s biological works on a world without animal or vegetable life? Borges has a story about one of the Arab commentators on Aristotle trying to understand the Poetics. Baffled by the terms “tragedy” and “comedy,” he concludes they are something like the little shows put on to entertain a caravan.

To make things worse, the study of Greek music—including the so-called “science of metrics”—has attracted some of the least stable intelligences in the history of scholarship. Occasionally, however, a major scholar has taken the time to interpret these mysteries to the profane: Boeckh and Wilamowitz on rhythm and meter (and, more recently, Jean Irigoin at the Sorbonne and Bruno Gentili and his students at the University of Urbino), Winnington-Ingram on music theory and notation, Egert Pohlmann and Andrew Barker on the ancient texts. Useful general works have been produced, in recent years, by Annemarie Neubecker, the late Giovanni Comotti, and M.L. West.

For the study of ancient music, however, America has been, for the most part, a wasteland. The best-known American scholar to tackle Greek music is Warren D. Anderson, whose Ethos and Education in Greek Music examined the use of music in ancient education as well as the more theoretical discussions of the philosophers. In his latest book, Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece, Anderson has moved away from theory to confront “the ways in which fire and kithara, aulos and harp and percussion—sounding alone or joined with the human voice—had a place in Greek life.” Beginning with the archeological record of European music in the Stone Age, Anderson quickly goes on to survey the depictions of musical instruments and performances in the Greek Bronze Age and in the Dark Age that followed the Trojan War and the collapse of the Mycenean citadels. He proceeds to a discussion of the literary evidence provided by Homer, the archaic lyric poets, and the writers of the fifth century, before concluding with Plato and Aristotle.

Anderson’s book is not meant to be a handbook, but it contains, perhaps, as much information as even a classically trained reader can bear. The descriptions of musical instruments is meticulous, and his review of archeological evidence is careful and sometimes illuminating. His treatment of the literary evidence is, on the whole, less satisfactory.

Throughout his work, Anderson sticks to the archeological evidence, wherever possible, in preference to the literary or traditional evidence. In many eases this is wise, but as an a priori assumption it is a mistake to assume that a vase-painter, for example, would have a better grasp of musical technology than a poet (and composer). His uncertain grasp of Greek literary traditions leads him, time after time, into making unwarranted conjectures. On the basis of the very small part of Alcman’s work to survive, he attributes to the Spartan poet an “unusual interest in the quality of the singing voice” which he uses as the basis for intruding Alan Lomax’s sometimes zany correlations between the singing style and cultural attitudes. (For some reason, the idea of Alan Lomax as a scholar strikes me as hilariously funny. The one time I met him he was drunkenly proclaiming solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world. “My daddy used to tell me that us Lomaxes were nothing but white trash,” etc. etc., all for the benefit of the black revolutionaries who were present, encouraging him with the usual, “That’s right. You tell it, Alan.”) Anderson then concludes that Spartan girls might have had shrill voices, because “wellborn Spartan girls in Alcman’s day unquestionably lived under strict constraints.”

Unquestionably? I have absolutely no idea of the kind of constraints under which Spartan girls lived in the time of Alcman (the seventh century B.C.). This was a period before the Spartan regime had fully solidified, but even in the fifth century, other Greeks were troubled by the freedom allowed to Spartan women. This is only one of many examples of a free-and-easy approach to literary evidence. Unfortunately, Anderson is not much better in dealing with the technical side of Greek rhythm: he even quotes, from the worst book ever published on Greek meter (by Halporn, Ostwald, and Rosenmeyer), a passage on Pindar in which the authors (actually, only Rosenmeyer) reveal they cannot tell the difference between meter and rhythm, a distinction that is comparatively trivial in spoken verse but of vital importance when one is dealing with music and music theory.

Anderson’s inability to handle Greek literature is not idiosyncratic; rather it is illustrative of a wider problem. Specialists in material evidence, (e.g., archeologists, epigraphers, paleoanthropologists) are frequently deluded into thinking that a catalogue of bones, potsherds, and graves constitutes some kind of history. Without the written evidence of narrative history, legal cases, and literature, we can have very little idea of another civilization. Where such records exist, of course, archeology can be enormously useful in solving problems, but where there is no literature—as in the Greek “Dark Ages”—the results are very much like the blind man’s impression of an art gallery. The real danger, however, comes when technologues go from the reassuringly solid evidence of bones and relics and try to interpret evidence of another kind—the records of the human mind and spirit. Here their incapacity is not the ignorance of the blind man in the art gallery but the blind man in the mine field, and all their learning becomes mere information of the type that destroys knowledge.


[Music and Musicians in Ancient Greece, by Warren D. Anderson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 248 pp., $35.00]