Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Ancient Greek (or Hellenistic) song, Epitaph of Seikilos, sounds a little bit like Neil Young


You have to be a real geek to get into something like this, but here goes ...

Today I surfed into it while I was following links to a story about a Neanderthal bone flute that I shared on Facebook. As far as we can reconstruct things like this, it's a song written in the first century by a Greek named Seikilos in memory of his wife. It survived to the present because it was inscribed on a marble tombstone. It is now in the Danish Nationalmuseet (national museum) in Copenhagen.

Known to scholars today as the Seikilos epitaph, it's a nice little tune. According to Wikipedia, it is the "oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world." It sounds like this:

Michael Levy plays Epitaph of Seikilos on replica of ancient Greek lyre

Since the tombstone was found in what is now Turkey, it isn't ancient Greek -- strictly speaking it is an artifact of the Hellenistic culture that was dominant in the eastern Mediterranean in the years after Alexander the Great. The language is the same Greek lingua franca, or koine, in which most of the New Testament was written. A team of British researchers have deciphered the musical notation, and in 2012 and 2013 they played the Epitaph of Seikilos at academic meetings and for the news media.

When he (or she) heard it, an anonymous writer for the News Corp Australia Network was reminded of Canadian 1970s rock star Neil Young, adding:

Think Kiss' Rock'n'Roll All Nite (Party Every Day). Think Bon Jovi's Sleep When I'm Dead. Think YOLO. This is Seikilos' take on life (and death).

Here, in a screen shot from Wikipedia, is the melody, both in the ancient Greek notation (see below for a rough explanation) and modern standard notation:

And here's the poem, again as it appears in Wikipedia, in Greek and modern English:

It's kind of a nice poem. Like the staff writer for News Corp. said, the lyrics do suggest you only live once, enjoy it while you can. A fitting enough theme for an epitaph.

Says Armand D'Angour, a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University who worked with the group that translated the song and set it to modern musical notation, writing for a BBC News report in October 2013:

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals - an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch: letter A at the top of the scale, for instance, represents a musical note a fifth higher than N halfway down the alphabet. Absolute pitch can be worked out from the vocal ranges required to sing the surviving tunes.

While the documents, found on stone in Greece and papyrus in Egypt, have long been known to classicists - some were published as early as 1581 - in recent decades they have been augmented by new finds.

Dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, these fragments offer us a clearer view than ever before of the music of ancient Greece.

The anonymous staff writer for News Corp. Australia picks up the story:

While fragments of even older music have been found, this short marble column contains the only known complete song with both music notations and lyrics.

Securely housed in the National Museum of Denmark, the marble column has now been "played" once more through the efforts of ancient music researcher Michael Levy and musician and Oxford University classicist Armand D'Angour.

The ancient form of music notation dates back to 450BC and involves alphabetical characters and accents placed above Greek vowels. These define the rhythmical beat and indicate upon which cylables the music's pitch should rise or fall.

Michael Levy picked up his lyre and gave the jingle a zesty edge.

Dr David Creese, a classics professor (and Neil Young soundalike), went retro and reproduced the music as accurately as possible, even going so far as to recreate a musical instrument popular at the time the engraving was made - an eight-stringed zither-like instrument that was played with a little mallet.

Creese, a Classics professor at Newcastle University, presented the song at the Royal Music Association of the Music and Philosophy Study Group, July 20, 2012. His instrument, which he calls a canon, is most like something that is linguistically impossible -- an eight-string monochord. He tunes it to the notes of a diatonic mode by arranging moveable bridges.

If you're interested in modal harmony, by the way, the epitaph is probably in what corresponds to the modern Phrygian mode.

So does it sound like Neil Young?

Well ...

You be the judge.

Here's a recording, with the epitaph declaimed in the style of ancient Greek drama and sung by members of Associazione per la Musica Antica Antonio il Verso early music group of Palermo, conducted by Gabriel Garrido. (The picture, BTW, is a pretty good reproduction of the actual inscription in Copenhagen):

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